Friday 15 April 2016, 08:18

Syrian father finds sanctuary on Spanish pitches

Darkness falls on the pitches at Villaverde Boetticher, a small club in the outskirts of Madrid, and seven-year-old Zaid Mohsen is doing a little shooting practice. Mimicking his idol Cristiano Ronaldo, he pulls his socks up, widens his leg stance and looks straight ahead. On another pitch a little distance away, his father Osama Abdul Mohsen blows on his whistle to mark the end of his training session with the club’s youth team, and makes his way to his appointment with

In his anxiety to have a kick-about with his father, little Zaid seeks assurances that the chat will not be a long one. Father and son have spent a little more than six months in Spain, the country they fled to from Syria. Like many thousands of their compatriots, they have sought refuge from a war that has been raging for five long years.

It was back in 2012 that Osama, a coach with Syrian first division club Al Fotuwa FC, called his wife and four children around him and informed them of a decision he had made. “I’d been out to get some food for the family, and there were bombs falling around me and corpses in the streets. I think that was the exact moment when I decided we should leave.” It was the beginning of a long journey of exile that took them from their home city of Deir ez-Zor, halfway between the Iraqi and Turkish borders, to Mersin, in south-east Turkey.

“We reached Turkey at the end of 2012,” explained Osama. “We rented a house and I found work as a coach with a team in the city.” One of his oldest sons, Mohammad, aged 17, was the first to cross the Mediterranean and head for Europe. Osama and Zaid followed shortly afterwards, embarking on a hazardous 20-day journey in which his ties with football and an unsavoury incident with a Hungarian reporter would change his fortunes. “Maybe I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t tripped me, but I prefer to think it was thanks to God and not her,” he said with a smile.

Images of Osama falling to the ground as he ran with Zaid in his arms were shown around the world. When it was revealed on social media that he was a well-known football coach in Syria, the Spanish National Training Centre for Football Coaches (CENAFE) did the rest and offered him work. Shortly after arriving in the Spanish capital, he was invited by Real Madrid to pay them a visit, with Zaid getting the opportunity to meet Cristiano.

The coach now leads a much more peaceful life, dividing his time between his day job at CENAFE and his youth-team duties at Boetticher, not that holding down more than one job is anything new to him, as he explained: “Before the war, I worked as a PE teacher in the morning and coached my team in the afternoons. In Syria it’s impossible to make a living from football alone, even if you work for a first-division club.”

The main thing for me is that my children have a future. That’s why I went on this long journey.

In bringing all his teaching and coaching experience to bear at Boetticher, Osama has earned the admiration of his young charges, among them Ismael, who had this to say about him: “His experience comes through in the drills he gives us. They’re easier than the ones we used to do with other coaches, but you end up a lot more tired.”

Voicing his agreement and sporting a black Real Madrid top, Mohamed said: “We’ve been with him for nearly five months and we’ve climbed a lot of places in the league. I hope he stays with us next year. We speak English with him too. I’m just about learning as much here as I do at school,” he joked.

Osama is every bit as thrilled with his new life too, though he is anxiously waiting for paperwork to go through so that he can be reunited with his wife and two other children, who are still in Turkey. “The three of them should be free to come here in a couple of months,” he said hopefully. “The main thing for me is that my children have a future. That’s why I went on this long journey, which has brought me to Madrid."

Despite the distance that now separates them, Osama has not forgotten the friends and relatives he left behind in Syria. “Life is very hard for them. I try to speak to them at least once a month but getting in touch with them is not easy. There’s hardly any internet and telephone coverage.”

Sharing a thought with us about his future, he said: “I need to take a coaching course here and learn more.” Aside from coaching at professional level in Spain, however, he has other long-term plans in mind: “When the war ends I might go back to Syria to help my people. And if I do, I want to be able to teach everything that I have learned here and do my bit to improve the standard of our football. I will be ready for that.”

Football has in fact given the long-suffering people of Syria something to smile about in recent times, with the national team defying the ongoing bloodshed to advance to the penultimate round of the Asian qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

As for Osama, his chat with came to an end with the sun having set and floodlights aglow. Bidding farewell with a sincere smile, he set about ending the day in the best possible way: kicking the ball around with his youngest son.