ROUGH CUT. NO REPORTER NARRATION.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s office issued a video of him on Monday (October 23) meeting two former dissident soccer players who returned to the Syrian national team for its World Cup qualifying campaign after years in exile.
Syria’s soccer team outdid expectations in trying to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time, reaching a play-off against Australia that they lost 3-2 on aggregate.
The two players, Firas al-Khatib and Omar al-Soma, were both pictured with the Syrian opposition flag early in Syria’s conflict. Video shot by the president’s office showed Assad walking with the pair, apparently in amicable conversation, at a ceremony to honor the team for their World Cup qualifying exploits.
The government says its policy is to pardon any Syrians who joined the opposition unless they have “blood on their hands”. However, many exiles have said they fear arrest if they return.
The soccer team’s unexpectedly strong performance in the qualifiers – despite its ultimate failure to reach the finals – was hailed by many government supporters as a unifying moment for the country. But some opposition supporters identified the team with Assad’s government, and declined to back it.