Football can bring peace: Syrian great Firas al-Khatib
By Abhishek Hore
Moscow, Jun 14 (PTI) A political stance halted his international career for five years and now that he is back in the fold, Syrian football great Firas al-Khatib says he doesn't care about politics anymore as football could end up being better at bringing about peace in his war-ravaged country.
Firas had hit international headlines when he withdrew from the national team back in 2012 to protest against Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad, accusing him of bombing his home town Homs, following the uprising in 2011.
Firas boycotted the Syrian national team for five years -- from 2012 to 2017. He agreed to return to lead the national team "for the sake of his people", in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers last year.
"Our players always try their best to do well on a football pitch and bring some smile on the faces of our fans. This is our first and foremost thought," he said.
"Apart from that, we don't care about the politics, we don't care. We play football, we play sport. We don't care about other things."
In return, he lost many friends as players were then forced into taking sides -- either in favour of or against Assad.
The 35-year-old forward was at the helm of affairs as the team, battling heavy odds, came agonisingly close to securing a historic World Cup berth, only to fall in the final play-off game against Australia in Sydney.
And as the death and destruction continues with no redemption in sight, Firas wants to keep doing whatever little he can, through football.
"We are sad that our team is not in World Cup but this is football, we tried our best. We have very big problem back home and it's been six years that Syria is in war," Firas said.
Firas, who has been a regular in the national team since 2001, currently plays in the Kuwaiti Premier League, but his heart lies in Syria.
Besides the national team, Firas has turned out for plenty of top clubs in Asia with plenty of success, scoring goals at will.
Asked about staying away from the national team, he said, "It's a long story, but finally, I am back to help the team, players, help all the people and the country.
"Football can surely bring about peace. Because all the people whether against or for the government, are coming behind the national team and that is a very good step for us. Now, we are much better than last two years.
"The (Syrian) league has restarted, 20,000 people come to support the players, their teams and this is good."
He looks at the future with hope.
"We have talented players, we are a very god national team in Asia. We are ranked sixth and will try to at least make the semifinals of Asian Cup.
"We now have a new coach from Germany and he is very good, and experienced. I am sure he will help us to get better," said Firas, whose favourite team in the World Cup is Argentina.
His past has been a roller-coaster but rather than dwelling on it, Firas is looking ahead with renewed hopes