By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – In a defiant gesture of support for his country’s embattled leader, Syria’s national soccer coach wore a t-shirt of a smiling President Bashar al-Assad to a news conference in Singapore on Monday – and said he wanted to keep politics out of sport.
The coach, Fajr Ibrahim, was flanked by midfielder Osama Omari and a Syria Football Association official, who also sported matching white Assad t-shirts ahead of a 2018 World Cup qualifying match in Singapore on Tuesday.
The news conference came just hours after French warplanes pounded Islamic State positions in Syria and as police in Europe widened their investigations into coordinated attacks in Paris on Friday that killed more than 130 people.
On Saturday, Russia, the United States and powers from Europe and the Middle East outlined a plan for a political process in Syria leading to elections within two years, but differences remained over Assad’s fate.
Ibrahim said nobody had asked him to wear the t-shirt.
“This is our president, we are proud because Mr Bashar is our president, so proud,” he told reporters when asked about the choice of shirt. “Because this man fights all terrorist groups in the world, he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world.”
Ibrahim said Assad was a keen supporter of the Syrian team, which is ranked 132nd in the world and has never qualified for a World Cup finals.
Syria plays its home games in Oman due to the civil war, which has also riven the national team, with some players fleeing the country or joining rebel forces.
Asked by one journalist about the attacks in Paris and what his team were playing for on Tuesday, Ibrahim tried to divert the conversation. “I’m not talking about it, that is politics. If you have any questions about Singapore-Syria, ok.”
Asked again whether the choice of t-shirt was a political gesture, Ibrahim’s replied: “He is our president, this is ours, I don’t care about French or any other, I care about my country.”
A Singapore Football Association (FAS) media official then asked for questions to be centred on Tuesday’s match at the National Stadium, where Syria seek another win to edge closer to reaching the next stage of qualifying for the finals in Russia in 2018. Syria are second in the five-team Group E on 12 points, one behind leaders Japan and two ahead of third-placed Singapore.
Only the eight group winners and four best runners-up advance to the third round, and also book a spot at the 2019 Asian Cup to be held in the United Arab Emirates.
No Syrian fans or media are expected to attend Tuesday’s fixture, which will be played amid enhanced security, an FAS spokesman told The New Paper on Sunday.
Ibrahim said his side were focused just on winning the match. “We are here to make our people happy,” he said. “All the world fights us and we will fight all the world at football.”
Singapore’s coach, German Bernd Stange, said his two children had been in the Stade de France national stadium in Paris on Friday evening watching the France-Germany friendly soccer international when explosions were heard outside.
“They were on the way to the stadium and woke me up at night and they are in the middle of this trouble,” the former Iraq and Belarus coach said. “They walked 11 kms (6.8 miles) home after the match, and arrived home at 4 a.m. My family, my wife, we are all very, very nervous.”
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)