From Aleppo to Aizawl: Why Syria's Al Amna is at peace during an unlikely I-League title decider
Mahmoud Al Amna's first season with Aizawl FC could end with a title win.
The David vs Goliath narrative is widely witnessed in the field of sports, not least in the highly dynamic and unpredictable sport of football. This year, in the Indian top flight, another instance of that aforementioned narrative has taken shape as the underdogs Aizawl FC aim to upset the status quo of Indian football by winning the I-League title from under the noses of the giants of the country, Mohun Bagan.
There is tension in the air as the two title challengers fight for the crown in a direct face-off on Saturday afternoon. In the midst of it all, one man must be unperturbed since he has been through far more tumultuous times in his life.
Mahmoud Al Amna is Aizawl FC’s midfield anchor man-cum-string puller. The 34-year-old from Syria exuded calm when he spoke about his team’s upcoming crucial, almost title-deciding game against Bagan.
“We [Aizawl FC] had a dream at the beginning and we are very near to realising that dream but even if we don’t win the league, it will still be a great season for us. We are not bothered about the end result, just focusing on the match at hand,” Amna told the Times of India ahead of the big match.
For a man who has been forced to flee his country to escape the perils of war, Amna has now found a new home in the hills of Mizoram. The Syrian Civil War broke out as part of the wider unrest of 2011’s Arab Spring protests, and ever since, Amna has not played for a club in his homeland.
Amna goes about his job with the utmost composure on a football pitch, but he is as normal as anyone off it. War takes away a lot from people directly and indirectly affected, and the scenes from Syria take Amna back to the past when he grew up playing football in more peaceful times.
“Like many children, I grew up playing in the street and then you see the news. You see where you played and you think, ‘I know this place, I know that place’ and then you see what the bombs have done…”
In the last few years, he has experienced the tragedy of losing close friends and fellow footballers, and his concerns now are mostly about his brother and sister who still live in Aleppo.
“For the last 4–5 years, it has been very hard. Often, there would be no electricity and sometimes I could hear bombs when I would call her [his sister]. It was not safe at all,” Amna told Sportskeeda.
“I talk to them [his brother and sister] all the time. You know, anything can happen to them. They can die. Bad things can happen.”
The psychological complications of seeing one’s country of birth ravaged by war are, well, complex, and being a professional footballer, Amna goes on with his job, unable to help his family and friends back home the way he would like and only being in touch through phone calls and messages.
“Life goes on. You cannot do anything about these things. You just have to go on doing your job.”
And boy, has he done his job well. Amna has played in all but three of Aizawl’s league games this season. His scoring contribution of two goals is nine percent of the Reds’ total goals scored this season, not significant, but pretty vital when you consider he plays a deeper, holding midfield role for his team. He has also chipped in with assists in open play and from set-pieces and remains his team’s chief ball recycler.
Until now, in his illustrious career, Amna has won a league title only once. That was in 2005 with Syria’s biggest club Al-Ittihad of Aleppo. 12 years on, he is on the cusp of winning another one, almost 5,500 kilometres away.
In times of the Syrian strife, Amna has found peace in the serenity of Aizawl. The 81-time capped former international has vindicated Aizawl’s decision to bring him in in the first place. From being relegated last season and then reinstated on subjective grounds to fighting for the title this time round, it has been quite the roller-coaster ride for the upstarts from Mizoram.
There is a new-found sense of control in the team’s play this season, with the naivety of last season a thing of the past. Head coach Khalid Jamil must take much of the credit for that, but his housemate Amna has been equally responsible in the Reds’ improbable ascent. The phlegmatic midfielder’s assuredness on the ball and sense of the state of play make him a principal cog in Aizawl’s machine.
When the Reds last played Mohun Bagan, they lost 3–2 at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium on the 4th of February. Amna missed that game with a toe injury, and Darryl Duffy went on to score an 86th-minute winner for Bagan.
With Amna nailed on for a start this time round, not only will it be difficult for Bagan to break through Aizawl’s disciplined central lines, but also the chances of conceding a late winner become slimmer. Amna is an embodiment of this Aizawl team of unexpected title challengers. That is because, at least on the pitch in the hills of North East India, he is at peace and well-removed from the wreckage of war.