Football in a War Zone: Ziad Chabo Won't Let Syria's Troubles Stop Him Coaching

Max Whittle@@max_whittleSpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 20, 2016

Ziad Chabo

Ziad Chabo gave his life to Syria's national football team for 18 years. Now, Syria is a place that threatens to take it away.

Chabo lives in the port city of Latakia, a government stronghold since the country's civil war began in 2011. There, the 37-year-old defiantly coaches young footballers amid the chaos despite the constant fear for his and his family's safety.

Over 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the five years of armed conflict. A staggering 11 million people have been forced from their homes, more than than half the country's population. But the Chabo family have held their ground—football and family keeping hope alive as rockets and car bombs invade their daily lives.

From the outside, it might look like everyone is fighting in Syria. The reality could not be further from the truth; innocent civilians are trying to live normal lives during one of the deadliest periods in history.

"Before the war, Syria was a peaceful and prosperous country, with opportunities for all," Chabo said. "Today, with ISIS, everyone and everything is a moving target for them."

It is hard for him to go back in his mind to his childhood—a better, purer time—living in Fedio, a place where he says life is celebrated.

Chabo (back row, top right), pictured before a World Cup qualifier for Syria against Iran in 2008
Chabo (back row, top right), pictured before a World Cup qualifier for Syria against Iran in 2008Getty

Back then, he would commute to Latakia for schooling, always making sure he got his football in before walking home. His talent soon shone through.

"When I was 11, my school played in a tournament, and one of the coaches at Hutten Club, in Latakia, saw me and offered me a place."

By the age of 16, Chabo was playing for Syria's junior international side. He travelled all over the world: South Korea, East Asia, South America, Africa and Europe. A powerful player with natural instincts, showreels speak to an aggressor in the box, unleashing his body toward crosses and scoring many a goal with his head.

Chabo went on to represent his country 75 times as a striker, scoring 23 goals and spending five years as his nation's captain. In the midst of that, he played for Birozia famous club in Iranfor one season.


    

The war started in March 2011. Ziad Chabo retired from football soon after.

"When the trouble started in Syria, we all thought it was going to end soon, because this had always been a calm and friendly part of the world," he said.

"I had no clue what happened around us in our city. The army groups drove cars, shot people and created a horrible and scary atmosphere. No one went outside their homes, and that is sad because we are not usually afraid.

"Fortunately, our army group drew these people out to the edge of Latakia."

Max Whittle

In June, as AFP reported (h/t the Straits Times), two people were killed in Latakia when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up as people left the Khulafa al-Rashideen mosque following afternoon prayers.

ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks that killed 148 people in Tartous and Jableh in May, which saw a hospital entrance and bus station hit by bombs.

It's not easy for Chabo to live a normal life.

"I wake up at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. [and] go off to buy food for my family," he said. "Then my wife cooks us breakfast. Everything is expensive here, but luckily I protected my money during my career.

"In Syria, when you are a big star, everybody wants to say 'hello' to you and take a picture, but I'm not worth anything now. I take my kids to the field and teach them how to play football. They also like music, so I teach them how to play the guitar."

Regular activities such as these have evaded so many families in Syria—innocent bystanders robbed of their freedoms because of what's happening there.


    

Chabo feels a lot older than his 37 years. The time spent indoors is hurting him just as much as what's going on outside. He lives with his wife and two young children, Zien and Maher, who are only allowed to watch sport or cartoons on television—no news.

Everything is about striving for normalcy.

Twelve-year-old Maher is a talented footballer, but it's not safe enough to play outside regularly.

As for his father, coaching can be a tough job when you consider the priority is to stay alive.

Chabo pictured coaching a group of children
Chabo pictured coaching a group of childrenMax Whittle

"I coach the national team in our city, and I hold training sessions here in Latakia every two days," he said. "Youth teams also need coaching. When ISIS or army groups throw rockets or bombs, the parents of the players are afraid and do not send them to the training, so cancelling is not a surprise for me. But I don't just do this for them. For myself, I go to the training.

"Many of my players have travelled to Germany and Sweden as refugees. I hear their news. They are in good health now. Two of them are in each country. They have a new life, they are good players and I know they will be big stars in the future."

The stars aligned for Chabo and a select group of Damascus-based players in May, when they were offered the temporary escape of their lives. Nine players between the ages of nine and 13, including Maher, went on a Champions League weekend in Milan.

Chabo managed the team dubbed "Al Wahda Club," as they made their way to the Italian city to play in a tournament sponsored by the competition, hosting 32 different nations.

The team from Syria showed spirit and enthusiasm throughout; winning, drawing and losing in their three group games and always making the effort to talk to their opponents.

The most sobering thought was seeing other teams miserable after a defeat, then turning to see the Syrian team sitting together. Just being there was a victory for them.

Max Whittle

"No one thought we could take a Syrian passport to Europe," Chabo said. "All people around the world have a view of this passport and are afraid of these people.

"They didn't believe us, but we fought for it. We travelled from Damascus, from our home, then to Lebanon for six hours by road. We stayed there for nine hours, then flew to Frankfurt for four hours, then after a three-hour wait, we flew again to Milan.

"My players were very happy in Milan. In Syria, they are very careful and alert when they walk anywhere. When they leave school, they go directly back to their homes, and in the street, they have to be aware every second. In Milan, they saw good people, they saw the San Siro, and they saw people from all around the world. It was good to see them smiling and relaxed."

On the final day, the team attended the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.


    

Milan provided a wonderful respite, but Syria is home. Syria is reality.

Chabo admits that if he had the chance, he would leave Syria with his family and find a safe life for his two boys. In the meantime, he refuses to bow to terrorism.

"People have to get on with their daily lives, no matter what," he stated. "We are normal. When we hear the bombs here or elsewhere, we want to leave. We can't stay in our house because we have to go out and buy food. We can go to restaurants. We can go anywhere in my city.

"When we are in danger, we stay in our house for five or six hours. But if we stay for longer, ISIS and the army groups have won. They cannot be allowed to win. These extreme groups are not humans; they are animals."

Chabo is a proud Syrian. He celebrated his goals for the national team passionately, and he hopes the war will be over soon, giving his family a chance to regain the freedom they deserve.

But for now, football is his saviour. Once he played in peace; now he coaches in the midst of war.

"I have great faith in this game," he said.

    

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.

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