By James M. Dorsey
Stadiums in this soccer-crazy country are empty and frequently used as staging posts for pro-Assad forces or detention centers. Largely suspended, the Syrian league has been reduced to four teams, two of which dropped out in the 2010/2011 championship. That pitted Syria’s two historically strongest team Al Jaish (The Army) against its police counterpart, Al Shurta (The Police), who represented the regime’s grip on the sport.
Lulu Shanku, a former national team player returned to his Swedish premier league team Syrianska disgusted with the corruption in Syrian soccer and the intimidation of players by the Assad regime. In some ways, he may have jumped from the fire into the frying pan, illustrating the importance Arab autocrats attribute to soccer even when it is played beyond the Middle East and North Africa.
Power within Shanku’s team rests with an Assyrian exile who served on Syrianska’s board and now is its unelected head of security. A mechanic and failed gas station owner who unabashedly defends Mr. Assad, he is believed to have ties to Syrian intelligence and local crime groups.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog