Syrian Football Gets Business Backing

Growing competition leads clubs to seek new sources of finance.

Syrian Football Gets Business Backing

Growing competition leads clubs to seek new sources of finance.

Friday, 31 July, 2009
Physician Faher Kalo has taken his love for football to a new level: he has become a financial backer of Al-Karama, the local team of his home town of Homs and national champions for the last four seasons.

“I am passionate about this team. I am happy to pay to support it because I cannot bear to see it lose,” he said.

Kalo has been made a member of the club’s board and has been appointed director of football, getting involved with appointing the club’s manager. When the club was facing financial difficulties about two years ago, Kalo brought several other businessmen on board.

He is one of a growing number of Syrian businessmen and professionals who have been funding local football teams to enhance their social standing in the community through what is the country’s most popular sport. It is not known how much Kalo has invested in the club.

The clubs’ need for funds has grown as the sport has become more professional and sides have become more competitive. Players’ wages have not reached the astronomical levels of the European game but can be between 500 and 1,000 US dollars per month. Foreign players, who are mostly from Africa and Brazil, can command up to 6,000 dollars.

Rich clubs benefiting from the support of wealthy businessmen have been able to sign sizeable contracts with the best players and bring in talent from abroad.

Syria has 14 clubs in the Premier League, four based in the capital Damascus and roughly two linked to each province, in addition to around 120 registered local teams. Games in the league, which has operated since 1966, take place between October and May every Friday and Saturday.

Some say that the football landscape in Syria today mirrors the liberalisation of the economy that has taken place in recent years with the emergence of private investors.

“Football clubs today are thinking in a commercial way,” said Mohamad Khayr al-Kilani, a sports journalist.

Clubs today look for contributors because of costs that range from running training camps to the salaries of players and trainers as well as travel expenses, he said.

However, rivalry between businessmen supporting various teams and their desire to see their clubs win has led to allegations of corruption.

Whether or not referees, trainers and players take bribes has become a common topic of conversation among football fans in cafes across the country.

In an unprecedented move, an investigation committee formed by the Syrian Football Association decided recently to stop two teams from playing following allegations that they were involved in bribery during this year’s national league.

“These punitive measures are staggering and unprecedented in the history of Syrian football,” said Khaled Bourhane, another sports journalist.

In national tournaments, many teams win points in “illegitimate ways”, said Abdel-Alim al-Fashoul, a member of the administrative staff at Wathba football club also based in Homs.

He said players in his team had received offers of large sums of money from businessmen to allow their opponents to win.

Club officials say they lack the financial capability to become self-sufficient and so are forced to rely on private contributors to survive.

The government has built premises such as small football fields and restaurants for the main clubs and allowed them to make money from running them.

But clubs are still prohibited by the authorities in socialist-minded Syria from engaging in lucrative activities such as collecting royalties for the use of their logos or operating stores to sell T-shirts or other products bearing the club name.

Endorsement of clubs and players by the corporate world is also emerging, albeit rather slowly.

For instance, when Karama became Asia’s number one Arab team in 2007, mobile phone operator MTN paid the club to have its logo on the shirts of the players for a whole season.

But this phenomenon remains small because the culture of advertising is still weak in Syria, some say.

According to Abdel-Rahman Dabbagh, a sports critic, contracts signed between private companies and football clubs are small compared to what happens in other countries.

The lack of financial means was one reason why Syrian teams had so far made little progress internationally, he said.

Dabbagh said Syrian football was impaired by the bureaucracy and complications of having multiple government agencies overseeing sport in the country.

“It is time to establish an independent sports ministry in Syria,” he said.

Kilani, the sports journalist, also blamed the fact that Syrian teams lag behind other nations on mismanagement.

“We need a new management to organise football in Syria,” said Kilani, calling for long-term, visionary planning.
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