There were barely 700 voices in the Al Seeb complex, a one-hour drive along the coast from the Omani capital, Muscat, and almost all of those voices were Japanese. On the pitch, Syria were playing Japan, considered perhaps the best team in Asia, in a 2018 World Cup qualification match.
The Japanese had an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, with players plying their trade in some of the best leagues in the world. Maya Yoshida of Southampton, riding high in the Premier League. Former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa—currently reviving his career at Borussia Dortmund, the club with whom he made his name—was also playing. And then there was the mercurial Keisuke Honda.
The Syria team was simply lucky to even be there. The match was nominally a home game, but the brutal Syrian civil war that has produced four million refugees and killed tens of thousands of people means the national team now effectively plays in exile.
Back in 2011, just before the start of the war, Syria nearly shocked Japan in the group stage of the Asian Cup, Asia's equivalent of the European Championship.
Japan took an early lead on an unusually cold, rainy night in Doha, the capital of Qatar. But Syria equalized through Firas Al Khatib, the team's captain, who was then considered arguably the greatest Syrian player of all time. Despite being comprehensively outclassed by Syria, Japan scored late on to secure the victory. It was Honda who did the damage. Japan went on to become champions, their fourth Asia title.
But that time has passed. The majority of the Syria squad from that Asian Cup now refuse to play for the team on political grounds, including Al Khatib, whom the Syrian regime now views as a traitor.
Four years later, only a few dozen Syria fans, expats in the construction industry, were the only home support the Syrians could muster in Oman. They gamely tried to drown out the impressively noisy Japanese contingent but failed.
In a world where Syria wasn't bogged down in an impossibly complex civil war, this match would have attracted 50,000 fans at the new Aleppo International Stadium or at the crumbling Abbasiyyin Stadium in Damascus. Yet with war raging, home advantage was a dream. A handful of fans would have to do. It was no surprise that Japan cruised to a 3-0 victory in Oman, with Honda striking the first blow.
And yet qualification for Russia 2018 is still something of miraculous possibility. Syria are second in Group E and well placed to qualify for the next round. The question remains: Will Syria even exist in three years' time? And if it does, who would be left to play for the side?
Several thousand miles away, Mohammed Jaddou was contemplating his new life in his new home. It is a bright but bare wooden-built house in the tiny village of Stiefenhofen on the outskirts of the marginally less tiny town of Oberstaufen in southern Germany.
There is little to do in the German hills. Jaddou is a Syrian refugee who lived there with his father and uncle, alongside three other Syrian refugees: a farmer, a baker and a student. They were isolated, Jaddou said, and besides, none of them had a car. Outside, rolling green hills dominated the horizon. It was midsummer, warm and silent. The sound of cow bells could be heard chiming from the herds that momentarily mooch past. It was a bucolic landscape and arguably one of the safest places on earth.
In the winter, the surrounding mountains offer a gentle skiing experience for older tourists from Austria and the Netherlands, not to mention the rest of Germany. In the summer, the area is filled with hikers and bikers, traversing the many famous trails that criss-cross into the distance.
Jaddou's uncle, Zakaria, gingerly rose from his seat and limped to the veranda to smoke. He picked up the injury, he said, after boredom drove them to go on a cycling trip. He ended up crashing into a barbed-wire fence. They haven't been out on the bikes since. Yet here, in the house, the strain of the past four months could still be felt as if the hellish journey the three men had embarked on had not yet finished.
“Honestly, the first time I arrived in this village I didn’t like it: It’s on a hill, and I’m not used to that," admitted Mohammed. "But I got used to it. I liked this village a lot, as much as I liked my hometown. And if I ever leave this village someday, then I hope to return back."
In his former life, Jaddou, who comes from the coastal city of Latakia, was the captain of Syria's under-17 national team. But he is no longer captain of that team and likely will never play for Syria again. Despite being one of Asia's brightest prospects and having scored the goals that qualified Syria for the forthcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile, Jaddou joined the millions fleeing Syria.
“I was being threatened by both sides,” Jaddou told me in July. “When I used to travel from Latakia to Damascus—or the other way around—if the opposition caught me, I would probably die.”
The Syrian government, Jaddou claimed, “used to threaten to end my career and punish me if I did not show up for a training camp. The government also threatened to call me a deserter and sue me if I ever left the team."
He claimed to later discover the entire under-17 team had been placed on a no-fly list (despite a number of attempts to contact them, the Syrian Football Association did not reply to any questions regarding Jaddou's allegations). It was then he decided enough was enough.
Jaddou's talent was spotted at a young age. He began playing for Hutteen, who were relegated from the Syrian Premier League last season, and he was playing in the first team as a feared No. 10 from the age of 15. He had an idyllic childhood and remembers nothing but a burning obsession to play football, even at the expense of his school work.
But when the war began, the complex nature of the conflict—pitting the secular versus the religious and Shia versus Sunni—Jaddou became a target on multiple fronts. “I felt that my life was most in danger when we were in Syria, when we were going to a training camp in Damascus,” he said of the journey to and from training.
“Shootings and fights between the government and the opposition were taking place, and we got caught up in the crossfire. Missiles and bombs fell around our bus, and they opened fire on us. The bus driver started driving as fast as possible so that he [could] leave the area, and we also had to take cover under the chairs in the bus because otherwise snipers could take us out.”
During this time, remarkably, the Syrian league continued. All of the teams had to play their games in the country's capital, Damascus, which was still under government control. And qualification for international tournaments continued.
Jaddou had been promoted to captain of the under-16 team. He led that side to the AFC Championship finals in Bangkok in 2014. Yet one member of that squad didn't make it. Jaddou's team-mate, room-mate and best friend, 15-year-old Tarek Ghrair, was killed during a mortar attack in Homs.
The deaths, threats and pressure became too much. Figures within Syrian soccer, Jaddou said, put pressure on the players to be pro-regime. That is not surprising given that so many Syrian players had refused to play for the national team. Al Khatib, the captain in 2011 who scored against Japan in the Asian Cup, moved to China and then Kuwait. He never returned to the government-held areas of Syria.
Others have been more explicit in their opposition, such as Abdel Basset Sarout, the so-called “Singing Goalkeeper of Homs." Sarout was the Syria under-20 national team's goalkeeper, but he became an enemy of the state when he refused to play for the Syria team and instead became a key, totemic figure in the opposition thanks to his singing voice.
His recitation of patriotic songs attracted crowds of thousands in Homs. He survived multiple assassination attempts, as retold in the award-winning documentary Return to Homs.
Others have been accepted back into the fold. Mosab Balhous, Syria's goalkeeper, was jailed for "sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money," according to the Middle Eastern news outlet Al Arabiya.
He was later released and, amazingly, rejoined the national team. In 2012, Syria won their first major piece of silverware, the West Asian Football Federation Championship, beating Iraq in the final. President Bashar al-Assad invited the team to his presidential palace and offered them prize money and apartments.
Balhous and Assad shook hands. Balhous is the team's captain. He played in Syria's 6-0 demolition of Afghanistan in their opening Russia 2018 qualification match and was on the bench when they beat Singapore 1-0 in Oman recently.
If the current Syria team trying to reach Russia 2018 is the present, Mohammed Jaddou was Syria's future—the best and brightest of which have had no choice but to leave.
Jaddou's father sold his house, raising the money needed to pay people smugglers to sail to Sicily.
Jaddou gave a vivid description of his journey: a tiny boat overloaded with people—twice as many as should have travelled—that began sinking shortly into the journey. It took five days to reach Italian waters, with Jaddou and every other able-bodied man and boy bailing out water to stay afloat. Eventually, the engine gave up and they drifted for two days before they were spotted by a passing freighter and rescued by the Italian coast guard.
Jaddou's time in Italy was short and unhappy. The three were taken to a refugee holding centre for five days, which he described as being like a "prison."
"They forced us to give out our fingerprints, and they said it was to check if we have ever committed any criminal felonies," he said of his experiences with the Italian authorities. "They gave us a paper threatening us, which stated that if we don’t give our fingerprints the Italian government may imprison or use force to get our fingerprints."
Jaddou and his father immediately gave their fingerprints. His uncle refused and, they allege, was beaten until he changed his mind. "After obtaining our fingerprints, they released us from prison and threw us in the streets in the middle of Sicily," Jaddou said.
Jaddou, his father and uncle headed to Milan, taking a route through northern Italy to avoid the authorities en route. They slept rough at Milan train station, before reaching a refugee centre in Munich by paying a trafficker with what remained of their money. Eventually, their road led to Oberstaufen.
Immediately, Jaddou wanted to play football. He would practice with his ball—a gift from a German volunteer who had been working with refugees in the area—and train in the playgrounds and parks in the surrounding area. A Croatian bar owner who once played in the Yugoslav Second League immediately recognised his potential and offered to be his agent.
By July, Jaddou was training with German fifth-tier club FV Ravensburg, who have advanced a number of players to nearby Freiburg. Markus Wolfangel, the coach of FV Ravensburg's under-19 team, was effusive about Jaddou and wanted to sign him straight away for the team. Jaddou, at least, was safe. He had an agent who had big plans and talked of upcoming trials at Hertha Berlin and Schalke. Yet the clock was ticking.
Jaddou feared being deported back to Italy. Under the Dublin Regulation, refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country of entry. That was Italy, where he was held in a camp, fingerprinted and then released before heading to Germany. His hearing to find out whether he could stay was in a few months.
His status as a refugee made it almost impossible to find a club. German refugee law imposes severe movement restrictions. For the first few months, a refugee must stay in their region. If they want to travel farther afield, they need to apply for a permit. The application costs a non-refundable 10 euros regardless of whether it is approved.
Given that refugees receive around 40 euros a week, it was too much of a risk. Jaddou had special permission to travel to Ravensburg two evenings a week but was regularly stopped by the police to check his papers. The journey was a two-hour round trip.
Jaddou's biggest fear, though, was for his mother and two brothers who remained in Syria. "I want to start as fast as possible so that I can take them away from that place filled with destruction, kidnapping and insults and bring them here to Germany, where it is safe," he said.
His ambition is to play for a "top European club” in the Bundesliga. But his dream is to play with his doppelganger and hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, at Real Madrid. That, he thinks, is more likely than returning home.
The summer passed and the temperature fell. Driving rain blew through Oberstaufen as heavy clouds drifted around its hills. It was the start of autumn, and the forbearing chill of winter was in the air as Jaddou trained with different team-mates and a different team.
It was two months since Mohammed Jaddou and I had last met, and much had changed over that time. For one, it looked like Jaddou was now staying in Germany. The government had agreed to suspend the provisions of the Dublin Regulation, meaning refugees could claim asylum in other EU countries even if they had registered somewhere else first.
More importantly, the refugee issue had exploded into the public consciousness. When Jaddou left Latakia in April, hundreds of people were dying in the Mediterranean Sea—refugees and migrants aboard tiny, ramshackle boats run by people smugglers, just like the one Jaddou, his father and uncle had reached Sicily in.
But attention had now switched to the western Balkans, where thousands of largely Syrian refugees were crossing from Greece, into Macedonia and pouring over the northern Serbian border into Hungary, a European Union country. Germany was the final destination of choice. Something, however, had switched in the minds of those watching from western Europe.
Whereas newspaper editorials in populist right-wing newspapers in Germany and Great Britain had called on tough measures to prevent "economic migrants" from arriving, the pictures of a dead three-year-old Syrian boy from the Kurdish town of Kobani, lying face down on a beach in Turkey, had swung public opinion behind the refugees.
At football matches across the Bundesliga, banners started being raised declaring "Refugees Welcome." Whereas refugees were being tear-gassed by Hungarian police, the German authorities responded by opening the country's doors following an outpouring of public sympathy. Jaddou had now been in Germany for nearly five months, and the euphoria of reaching safety had passed.
Mblo 🌐 @JombloFootballs
Sementara itu di Bundesliga, suporter Weder Bremen bentangkan banner "Refugees Welcome". http://t.co/oL6PMjZz8w2015-9-19 14:58:48
His agent, too, had gone. As had his training sessions with Ravensburg. "I never saw Mohammed again," Wolfangel told Bleacher Report. "I believe that consultants [his agent] wanted to bring him to a bigger club. At least that’s my impression."
Wolfangel appeared desperate to sign him at the time. "We have started our season with our new team without Mohammed unfortunately," he said. "We lost the first three games. But I am still optimistic that it will get better."
Jaddou was now training with the youth team of Oberstaufen's local club, a regional outfit at the bottom of Germany's football pyramid. “It is the eighth or ninth tier—I'm not sure,” said the team's young coach during a break in training.
In terms of talent, Mohammed was head and shoulders above his team-mates, who weren't quite sure what to make of his obvious strengths. "He told me there is second-division club and that I should sign up with them and then later he would negotiate with a first-rated football club to buy me," Jaddou told Bleacher Report, back at the same house in Stiefenhofen. "This was our agreement."
Two of the Syrians who had lived there had moved on, replaced by two Pakistani teenagers—cousins who had assumed the joint role of house chef. The smell of Pakistani curry and Arabic flatbread wafted from the kitchen. "Later, I was surprised the club [his then-agent suggested] is in the fifth league," said Jaddou. "Of course, I have all the respect to this football club, and I am only relaying what happened to me and what I was told from that guy."
Mohammed's relationship with his agent broke down and he returned to Oberstaufen, returning to his training regime in the town's parks and playgrounds. When a Lebanese friend recommended him to Bayer Leverkusen, he was invited for a trial. But his refugee status was a problem.
"The coach of the under-19 team said I am a good player and could play in the Bundesliga," he recalled of his trial at Leverkusen. "He said I did not have proper documentation that would enable me to join the Bundesliga."
More importantly, he lived in a different region of Germany, which under refugee law made it impossible for him to travel to Leverkusen. "I was never depressed from that lost opportunity,” Jaddou said. “In fact, I became more determined to train myself harder to show Bayer Leverkusen who Mohammed Jaddou is."
Jaddou's story is a story of what happens next—of what happens after the white heat and noise of escape. What happens when the reality of building a completely new life from scratch kicks in? He still believes he can make it. He has survived war, escaped the clutches of a tyrannical government, crossed the Mediterranean in a sinking ship, slept rough and found safety. His inner belief has not dimmed. After the four months he and his family have lived through, it is unlikely that light will ever dim.
He's still learning German and training with whichever team will allow him to. His sadness only returns when we talk of his mother and two brothers, who are still in Syria, and when he talks about Tarek. No one has even ascertained who was responsible for killing him.
“I feel like I have left him behind,” he said.
There's also the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile, the tournament he sacrificed in order to escape. "I felt sorry for myself that I would not join my team in their joy and play with them for the World Cup. I felt that I would not be able to be of use to them," he said. "I imagined myself watching on TV while playing in Chile for the World Cup. Indeed, my feeling at that moment will not be good."
The 2018 World Cup in Russia may be the last chance for a team that represents Syria in its current form to ever qualify for a major tournament. Syria's stars of the future will likely go on to represent the countries they found refuge in, whether that's England, the Netherlands or, like Jaddou, Germany.
"I hope for the national team to show the world what is Syria," said Mohammed, cracking into a smile that Cristiano Ronaldo would be proud of. "I wish them to be better than me. I wish them to achieve the greatest of all wins and make the Syrian nation happy like never before."
James Montague is the author of Thirty One-Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey and a regular contributor to the New York Times, CNN and World Soccer magazine. All quotes were gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. Parts of this story also appear in a feature James wrote for World Soccer.