Coach proclaims Assad 'best man in world'

Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim, pointing at his T-shirt printed with Syria President Bashad Al-Assad's photo.
Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim, pointing at his T-shirt printed with Syria President Bashad Al-Assad's photo.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

They claimed that they were not at a political conference but at a sports conference.

But in an unusual show of patriotism by Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim, midfielder Osama Omari and Syrian Football Association media officer Bashar Mohamed, the trio marched into the press conference for their game against Singapore wearing white T-shirts printed with Syria President Bashad Al-Assad's photo on the front.

When asked if they were trying to send a message with their choice of outfit, Ibrahim swiftly said they would not talk about politics.

But not before he declared his allegiance to the country's leader. He said, while slapping his chest repeatedly: "We are proud, we are so proud because he is our president. This man fights all terrorist groups in the world, he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world.

"Our president follows us every step. He supports us, we play for our country - and for him also."

The conference at the Amara Hotel took place just hours after French warplanes had bombed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions back home following Friday's attacks in Paris that killed 129 people.

When a reporter asked about the tragedy in the French capital, the coach declined to address the issue, saying: "I'm not talking about it, that is politics.

Asked if the T-shirt was a political gesture, he then replied: "He is my president, this is ours, I don't care about French or any other, I care about my country."

Besides national pride, Ibrahim also spoke of the added significance and motivation for his side to make it to the World Cup, a feat they have never achieved.

When asked what it would mean for Syria to go through, the coach said: "All the world fight us, then we (will) fight all the world in football, then we need to qualify."

While the mood in the Syrian camp was tense at the press conference, it was considerably lighter at a training session at the National Stadium later in the evening.

Prior to routine passing exercises, team officials hammed it up and snapped pictures of each other with their mobile phones during the warm-up before the team posed for a group photo to cries of "Cheese!".

The squad of 18, of whom only three are based in Syria, then got down to business with simple passing drills to cries of "faster" in Arabic from Ibrahim and his staff.

They then split up into pairs to practise whipping long balls cross-field.

When asked if security had been tightened for tonight's match in light of the Paris attacks, the Football Association of Singapore said: "The FAS has been and will continue to work closely with the authorities, Singapore Sports Hub and all relevant stakeholders to take the necessary precautions and enhance security measures so as to ensure that our fans can enjoy the match with peace of mind."

It pledged to monitor the situation closely and sought the "support and understanding of the public in this matter", adding: "The safety and well-being of our fans, players, officials and volunteers is of utmost importance.

The Singapore-Syria match will start following 30 seconds of silence as a tribute to victims of the Paris attacks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Coach proclaims Assad 'best man in world''. Print Edition | Subscribe