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Syria is a fractured country, and its national soccer team is no different. To some, the team represents the country’s aspirations to unity, a peaceful place where all Syrians can come together. But, to others, the team is a pawn of the bloody dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. A seven-month investigation by Outside the Lines and ESPN The Magazine that airs Sunday on E:60 details these divisions. Syria's improbable World Cup bid has pitted player against player, coach against coach — divisions that mirror the conflict that is remaking much of the world.

Team Syria has made it to the third round of World Cup qualifying, the closest the country has come to a bid in 31 years. But heroic stories about how the team has overcome long odds to find soccer success leave out one detail: Team Syria represents a government accused of committing war crimes against its own people, and soccer is woven into Assad’s grisly campaign of state-sponsored oppression. The Outside the Lines/ESPN The Magazine piece—titled “The Dictator’s Team”—reports that the Syrian government has shot, bombed or tortured to death at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian professional soccer leagues and dozens more from lower divisions. At least 13 players remain missing.

Our reporters and producers, including Pulitzer Prize winner and ESPN senior writer Steve Fainaru, traveled the globe for months, moving from soccer stadiums in Malaysia to refugee camps in southern Turkey, to follow current players and those who have defected.

The report reveals a civil war in miniature: a wrenching and sometimes bloody fight for the soul of Syria’s national sport. One player defected from the national team after learning that his 13-year-old cousin was killed by Assad’s forces; he is interviewed at a refugee camp on Turkey’s border with Syria. Another former player is shown taking a sports human rights case directly to FIFA, which rejects him. After boycotting the national team for five years, the Syrian team captain, Firas al-Khatib, toys with going back, for reasons he’s reluctant to explain. “I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” he says. “In Syria now, if you talk, somebody will kill you. They will kill you about what you think. Not about what you do."

The investigative report, part of which launched Thursday on ESPN Digital platforms, will make its television debut on E:60, ESPN’s award-winning news magazine program, on Sunday, May 14, at 9 a.m. ET with the launch of its weekly Sunday morning edition. It will also air on Outside the Lines throughout the week of May 15, and be featured in the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine on newsstands May 19.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017