For a moment on Tuesday, Ahmad Mohammad Mohammad, a 19-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, was able to forget about the war.
The Syrian national football team bowed out of 2018 World Cup qualification after a 2-1 loss to Australia on Tuesday, after an unlikely run that saw them progress to a qualification play-off.
At a cafe in central Beirut, fans expressed a mixture of disappointment and pride after the match.
“We’re crushed,” Mohammad said. “But the team managed to restore our honour … Who said we could’ve made it this far? God bless the players for giving us something to get our minds off the war and death and destruction.”
Excitement about the team’s run of success has been tempered by the country’s complex political climate. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed and another 5.1 million displaced in a brutal six-year conflict, and some Syrians say they can’t support the national side because of its enthusiastic adoption by the dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But at the Ka3kaya Cafe, men in suits and university students skipping class smoked hookah pipes and tried to put politics aside to focus on a football match.
When star striker Omar Al Somah put Syria ahead with a sublime strike early in the first half, chants of “Allahu Akbar” could be heard all the way down one of Beirut’s busiest streets.
Managers had to nudge their mostly Syrian waiters away from the television to serve tables.
But when Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Mawas was dismissed after receiving a second yellow card, and then Australia’s Tim Cahill scored the winning goal deep into extra time, the excitement turned to devastation.
Tarek Ziad al Kamesh, a 30-year-old Kurdish waiter at Ka3kaya, broke down into tears.
“What can I say? I feel like I have a lump in my throat. This is suffocating,” he said after the match. “This is all we had to look forward to. All eyes were on Syria and for the first time in a long time, it was on something positive.
“It seems it wasn’t meant for us this time. It seems like God didn’t want this to happen, [but] for a moment though, in this seven years of war, we were unified.”
Fayez Awad Omar, a 32-year-old delivery driver and janitor from Hama, was more circumspect.
“Who isn’t upset? But who isn’t proud either?” he said. “I have nothing but respect for the players. So much gratitude for being able to get this far.”
Inside the stadium in Sydney, a large and vocal contingent of Syrian fans kept up their support throughout the match. But attempts by some to unfurl a “Free Syria” flag inside the stadium were banned by police and stadium officials.
Before the match, Syrian community leaders, refugees, and Australia-based refugee and human rights activists staged a protest outside the stadium against the Assad regime.
Mark Goudkamp from Syria Solidarity Australia said there had been “taunting” from some Syrian fans, but there were no reports of clashes. The protesters prepared a large flag associated with Syrian rebels and unfurled it outside the stadium.
However, Goudkamp said they were told by Australian federal police officers that they couldn’t bring the flag inside. Signs at the stadium entrance showed that only the Australian flag and the Syrian national flag – which many Syrians see as associated with the Assad regime – would be allowed into the match.
Football Federation Australia’s terms of entry state that no “political flags or emblems” are allowed inside international matches. An FFA spokesman said the Asian Football Confederation’s rules stipulate that “only the official national flag from the two competing nations may be brought into a match venue”.
“These flags must also be within the size restrictions outlined by the match venue,” the spokesman said.
But Goudkamp said the Syrian national flag had negative connotations for many Syrians.
“For a lot of people, that flag stands for bombing and starvation,” he said. “We tried to argue that the flag represents a huge number of Syrians, but they obviously just didn’t listen.”
Instead, they tried to smuggle banners and scarves into the stadium. Footage posted on social media showed stadium security evicting patrons who held up a “Free Syria” banner during the match.
“We were like whack-a-moles,” Goudkamp said. “A couple of young guys held up a ‘Free Syria’ banner and one was escorted out. Another tried to hold up a sign about Syrian refugees and they were kicked out.”