Embedded inside Syria's civil war is a civil war in miniature: a wrenching and sometimes bloody fight for the soul of the national sport.
Syria's improbable World Cup bid has pitted player against player, coach against coach -- divisions that mirror the conflict that is remaking much of the world. During six years of civil war, at least 470,000 Syrians have died, and life expectancy in the country has dropped from 70 years to 55. Representing a nation with more than 12 million displaced people -- roughly half the population -- the national soccer team is yet another battleground between the followers and opponents of Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government contends that soccer is the one place where Syrians of all sides can come together in peace. Soccer is "a dream that brings people together. It gives people a smile and helps them forget the smell of destruction and death," says Bashar Mohammad, the Syrian national team's spokesman.
In reality, the Assad regime -- backed by FIFA's tacit support -- has woven soccer into its grisly campaign of state-sponsored oppression, a seven-month investigation by Outside the Lines and ESPN The Magazine shows.
The Syrian government has shot, bombed or tortured to death at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian professional leagues and dozens more from lower divisions, according to information compiled by Anas Ammo, a former sports writer from Aleppo who tracks human rights abuses involving Syrian athletes. At least 13 players are missing. Although opposition forces have killed soccer players on a smaller scale -- Ammo attributes four such deaths to ISIS -- the Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded that the Assad government has "used athletes and sporting activities to support ... its brutal oppressive practices." Soccer stadiums have been used as military bases to launch attacks on civilians. From the beginning of the war, according to players, teams were essentially forced to march in support of Assad, sometimes carrying banners and wearing T-shirts with the president's image. "Assad was keen to show people that athletes and artists were strongly supporting him because those are the people with the most influence in the street," Ammo says. "The marches were obligatory."
The ESPN investigation drew upon interviews with current and former players, current and former Syrian soccer officials, and friends and relatives of victims, as well as reviews of case studies and publicly available videos confirmed by human rights monitors. The interviews took place between September 2016 and March 2017 in Malaysia, Germany, Turkey, Sweden, Kuwait and South Korea.
You can read the rest at ESPN.