014 | Difficult life, beautiful game
Refugee footballer keeps dream alive
Story: Alex King
Images: Thalia Galanopoulou
Video: Lost Athina
There’s a place in Athens where you can watch footballers from nations around the globe coming together to demonstrate their skills. You’ll be sure to find a good seat, but this isn’t one of city’s grand football stadiums that seat tens of thousands of screaming fans. And unlike the World Cup, you won’t have to wait four years for the opportunity. After the sun goes down, make your way to Syntagma Square, in the heart of Athens, and you’ll see guys from Chicago to Kabul volleying the ball over the central fountain and dribbling their way through the passing crowds.
Watching the intense freestyle competitions, you’ll likely spot a guy whose skill on the ball clearly outshines the rest. His name is Obaida Assaf and he’s a 25-year-old professional footballer and refugee from Syria. After spending five years trying to evade ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria, he’s made it to Greece and is trying to pick up his career with a European club - but the clock is ticking and now he’s in his mid-twenties, the chances of realising his dream get smaller by the day.
When Obaida was nine, talent scouts noticed his ability on the school field and he was signed up to a junior training programme with the local club Al-Fotuwa SC in his hometown of Deir ez-Zor in Eastern Syria. He played centre forward and wowed the youth team with his ability to blaze past defenders. At 18, he was offered the chance to train with the senior team and left coaches with no doubts as to his abilities. “I was playing at the level of the best guys in the team,” Obaida remembers. “The coaches were impressed so they offered be a contract to join the professional squad and compete in the national cup the following season. I was so happy, I couldn’t believe I had made it. That was what I had been dreaming about since I was a child.”
That year was 2011. Popular protests against the regime for democracy and dignity were violently suppressed. Before he could set foot on the pitch, two months after Obaida was invited to the senior team, war broke out and his hometown was besieged by the Syrian army. Obaida’s dream was snatched from before his eyes and a five-year nightmare began.
“When I play football I forget all the war, I forget everything.”
After a year of living under siege in the destroyed city, he tried to escape in a car with his cousin’s family. At a roundabout, a sniper began shooting at them. His cousin was shot in the shoulder but managed to drive the group out of danger. Another bullet passed through the back of Obaida’s skull and hit his cousin’s wife in the face. She was killed instantly. Obaida’s skull was stitched back together without anaesthetic by a local doctor but he lost his hearing for months and still stuffers from periodic feinting and losses of balance. Years later, a scan by doctors in Greece revealed he still has a piece of shrapnel stuck in his skull.
Today, Obaida lives in Athens but his dream of playing professional football for a European club and playing for the Syrian national team is still out of reach. When Syria play Australia on October 5, he’ll watch, as he does every game, but with a heavy heart. He’s sure that without the war, he would be walking out onto that pitch, but he could never play for Assad’s team today.
Obaida’s stadium is Syntagma Square and, for now, that will make do. “When I play football I just focus on the ball, I don't focus on anything else,” he says. “When I play football I forget all the war, I forget everything.”