In war-battered Syria, pay demands turn football into ‘curse’

A goalkeeper dives to make a save during the Syrian league football match between derby rivals Al-Ittihad (red) and Al-Hurriya, in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo. (AFP)
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Updated 25 September 2020

In war-battered Syria, pay demands turn football into ‘curse’

  • $30,000 Is being demanded by players for a single season

DAMASCUS: Professional football clubs in war-battered Syria are struggling to sign new players, who are demanding raises to counter the decline in the value of their pay packets. 

Nine years into a grinding civil war, Syria’s economy is in tatters, life is increasingly expensive, and the national currency is in freefall on the black market. 

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded economic woes, with footballers forced to play in closed-door stadiums, wiping out turnstile revenues. 

“Professional football has become a curse,” said Eyad Al-Sibaei, president of Homs city’s Wathba club, runners-up in the Syrian league last season. 

“Players who once played with us for reasonable amounts are now demanding astronomical sums. They say it’s because of the devaluation” of the Syrian currency. 

The Syrian league, which has no foreign stars, was suspended for just one month for Covid-19, and it did not stop during the war except at the outset in 2011. 

Players were transferred last year for as little as 35 million Syrian pounds ($17,500 at the current black market rate), but Sibaei said players are now demanding salaries of up to 60 million pounds ($30,000) for a single season. 

“Next season, we’ll need between 400 and 500 million pounds for contracts and other expenses, knowing that the club only has around 160 million in its kitty,” he said. 

He said the club spent around 315 million last year, some of which he had to advance from his own pocket. 

Whereas the average Syrian earns between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds ($25-50) a month, an average professional football player brings home around 1.5 million pounds ($750) on a monthly basis. 

Osama Omri, a player with the Al-Wahda club which finished fifth last season, conceded football players were better off than the average Syrian. 

“The salaries are decent and the purchasing power of some players is good,” said the 28-year-old attacking midfielder with the Damascus club. 

“But it’s not enough to secure their future as a player’s lifespan on the field is short,” he said, as most players retire in their early thirties. 

No foreign player has been recruited since 2012, but today’s record devaluation is making even acquiring Syrian talent tough. 

The pound’s value against the US dollar has plummeted in the past year, from around 430 to 1,250 at the official rate, and from around 600 to 2,000 on the black market. 

The clubs Jaish and Shorta (army and police in English) are funded by the defense and interior ministries, respectively. 

But other clubs say the dual economic-coronavirus crisis has depleted their coffers, and are seeking funds elsewhere to recruit before the new season starts in a month. 

Reigning champions Tishreen, based in the coastal city of Latakia, have signed two new players with funds from sponsors and club board members. 

Ward Al-Salama, 26, who last year scored in Syria’s 1-0 win against the Philippines in World Cup 2022 qualifiers, is moving from Jaish for 50 million pounds ($25,000). 

Kamel Kawaya, 22, signed for Tishreen from Shorta for the same figure. 

Al-Wahda has renewed contracts with all its players, and even made three new signings. 

Its president Maher Al-Sayyed said he had pitched in to help cover some of next year’s ballooning budget. 

“I lent the club 180 million pounds while waiting for conditions to improve,” out of a projected budget of more than 600 million pounds, he said. 

In the northern city of Aleppo, Al-Ittihad are looking at a budget of 500 million pounds — more than twice last year’s. 

Basil Hamwi said they would be counting on fans and expatriates to help make it through the season. 

At Hutteen, another top-flight club from Latakia, coach Hussein Afash said he understood players’ demands. 

“The players are right to be asking for better-paid contracts after the devaluation of the pound as they’re now earning a fourth of what they did,” he said. 

Club president Khaled Tawil said he hoped that wealthy business tycoon Samer Foz would help cover costs. 

“We are counting on Foz, who sponsors our team,” he said.


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.