Paranoia or hoax? Syrian TV accuses Barcelona of delivering coded messages to rebel fighters

According to Syrian state TV accusations, Lionel Messi and his Barca teammates were part of an elaborate rebel plot

Syria's state-run television channel has made the astonishing claim that the Barcelona soccer team is assisting a group of rebel fighters by delivering coded messages via its tactical formations.

At least it seems astonishing. Some believe it was an elaborate hoax, and that wouldn't be surprising given the content.

Syria continues to be stricken with internal strife, as forces backing President Bashar al-Assad combat several rebel groups hoping to overthrow the government. Yet the long struggle might have caused widespread paranoia, even on the officially sanctioned news network.

Unless it's all a big joke, in which case substitute humor for paranoia.

Al-Dunya TV aired a bizarre feature Sunday outlining how Barcelona transmitted details of effective smuggling routes that could be used to distribute arms to dissident fighters. The program repeated charges originally made in December. According to the TV reporter, the Barca side's positioning on the field allegedly was deliberately set up to recreate a giant map, with players representing smugglers and the ball depicting a cache of arms.

A run from Andres Iniesta is said to portray the first part of the route, while the end of the move, where superstar World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi passes the ball, indicates the successful handover of the shipment, according to Al-Dunya.

The station used a segment on its nightly news bulletin to launch into a detailed description of how Barca had decided to add covert operations and international espionage to its dazzling array of talents.

Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Sergio Busquets are supposedly all in on the plot, which would surely have needed the approval – if not the masterminding genius – of head coach Pep Guardiola.

It is estimated that more than 9,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since the start of an uprising against President al-Assad last year, as part of the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

Even in the unthinkable eventuality that it was receiving assistance from the reigning European club champion, Syria's biggest rebel group – the Free Syrian Army – is still hopelessly outgunned by the government forces.

The European Union imposed an arms embargo on Syria last year, but the widely acclaimed Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed foreign arms supplies to the country had increased fivefold in the past five years, with the majority of them provided by Russia.

Hoax or not, the claims made by Al-Dunya, watched by millions of Syrians, could pile more international embarrassment onto al-Assad's regime, following leaked emails sent by his wife, Asma, in which she insisted she is "the real dictator" of the nation.

Barcelona does have controversial links with the Middle East that have raised eyebrows, but those are primarily centered on a shirt sponsorship deal involving the Qatar Foundation rather than any mysterious James Bond-style espionage.

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