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Can Syrians support their national soccer team without taking sides in the country's civil war?

It was the third minute into overtime of the soccer World Cup qualifier in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium between Syria and Iran. Iran was ahead, 2-1, but a red-shirted Syrian player, Mardik Mardikian, had just taken control of the ball and was now racing past his opponents.

The announcer turned plaintive. “Have we lost the dream by our own hand?” he said. “Come on, guys … Allah, Allah, please, please …”

With seconds left in the game, the play would decide whether Syria continued its improbable bid to enter its first World Cup. Mardikian passed the ball to striker Omar Somah, whose deft footwork slotted it in the goal’s far corner to end the game in a 2-2 tie and allow Syria to advance to a playoff.

The crowd went wild. The announcer howled, “Goooal!”

“Oh Allah, in the 93rd minute? What is happening? Cry! Be happy!” he shouted before breaking down in sobs. “I swear you deserve it, our national team, I swear you deserve it.”

The team’s success this week has given the country a rare cause for celebration amid a six-year civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead.

But it also has left Syrians conflicted and wondering: Is it possible to support the national team without supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad?

The team surely belongs to the people.

“Regardless of what happens, we have nothing to do with politics,” Firas Khatib, the team’s top striker, said in a phone interview this week. “We are representing the Syrian national team. We represent every Syrian citizen.”

But it’s hard to argue that the team doesn’t also belong to Assad, a leader who stands accused of using chemical weapons on his own citizens. As in most countries of the Middle East, the state is the major sponsor of sports and controls every aspect of the team.

All of the members must be approved by Assad’s government. The war has whittled down the number available, as many have joined the ranks of the diaspora and now play in Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait or other places abroad.

Some star players have spoken out against Assad and joined the opposition, which would like to see the president toppled by the various rebel groups his forces are fighting. Opposition activists say that some outspoken players have been targeted and killed by the government.

A few players who left the team have recently returned. Khatib rejoined the squad last month only after receiving guarantees of his safety from the Syrian Football Assn. The night of his heroic goal, Somah was making his first appearance with his team after a four-year exile.

Even fielding a national team — let alone getting to the brink of a slot in the World Cup — has been a challenge for Syria.

It has played its home games in places as far-flung as Malaysia. Even if the situation in Syria’s main cities were stable enough for tournaments, many stadiums have been converted to makeshift living areas for the millions of displaced.

The importance of the game was not lost on the government.

In the run-up to the live broadcast, the government erected giant screens in public squares in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. State media fawned over the squad, while supporters put up stylized posters displaying the words “Eagles of Qasyoun,” a reference to the mountain overlooking Damascus, and the Syrian flag, which the opposition refuses to recognize.

After the match, the players were flown back to the VIP chamber in Damascus International Airport, arriving to the cheers of hundreds of fans.

Other Syrians dismissed the celebrations as little more than a propaganda exercise by a government trying to suggest that the conflict has ended in its favor and that life has begun to return to normal.

“I understand people’s need for a happy event linked to Syria and their true desire to be united.… I respect their feelings,” said Hala Droubi, a Syrian journalist working in the region, in a Facebook chat Wednesday. “But at the same time, anyone who knows Syria well knows that in Syria there are no independent institutions, and that includes sporting institutions.”

She said that soccer especially had long been used by governments to create a false sense of belonging.

“Considering this team as one that is above politics and a national team that unites people is a big lie and part of a certain propaganda,” she said.

The government has reasserted its control over the country’s most important urban centers, including the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo.

Recent government advances led the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Wednesday to call on the opposition to be “unified and realistic enough and realize that they did not win the war.”

Yet much of the country remains divided, and thousands of Syrians now living abroad say it is impossible to return home with Assad still in power.

Some online commentators couldn’t resist pointing out the irony of Syria having to get past Iran — one of Assad’s top battlefield allies against the rebels — for a chance to play in a World Cup set in Russia, whose government is his most ardent international supporter.

They superimposed the faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hassan Nasrallah, head of the pro-Assad, Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, on a picture of the team. Assad was the goalkeeper.

There were rumors that Iran had thrown the game for its ally, but its coach said that was nonsense, Iranian news outlets reported.

Opposition activists, meanwhile, took to Twitter using a hashtag campaign with the words “The Team of Barrels” written under the “Eagles of Qasyoun.”

It was a reference to barrel bombs, the crude explosives used in airstrikes by government forces.

Khatib, like other players, insisted he was interested in only soccer.

“This is an unprecedented achievement, and our real achievement was the happiness of the Syrian people,” he said. “I hope we’ll be able to bring joy to people and reach the World Cup.”

Syria still needs a favorable showing in four games to qualify for the World Cup. It is likely to face Australia in the coming months, leading to calls from the opposition for people to cheer for the Australian team over the Syrian one.

Those calls provoked a question from Maias Yamani, a Syrian musician — and passionate soccer fan — living in Doha, the Qatari capital.

“If next week the government fell and all the offenders left Syria and all the prisoners were released from the prison and the killing ended,” he wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday, “after how many weeks can one cheer for the Syrian team instead of the Australian team?”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

Twitter: @nabihbulos

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