Despite a devastating conflict that has afflicted them since 2011, Syria are closer than ever to qualify for the World Cup. They will play Australia in a two-legged tie next month after managing to hold Asian giants Iran to a 2-2 draw on Tuesday. This is how they have come so far…
The away team Because of the violence, Syria last played a match at home in December 2010. Poor relations with most neighbours meant they were left with few choices to play their home games. So they chose Oman as their base and played group stage matches against Japan, Singapore, Afghanistan and Cambodia there. They scored 26 goals in the 8 group-stage matches, winning six and losing only to Japan. The impeccable record meant for the first time since 2002, Syria made the cut for the final round of qualifiers. They played these matches in Malaysia as no other nation was willing to host them.
Golden generation This is considered to be the most talented bunch of players Syria has produced. Omar Khribin leads the goal scoring charts for Syria in the qualifiers with 10 goals. He plays for Saudi team Al-Hilal. The team’s captain, Ahmad al-Saleh, plays for China’s Henan Jianye, while Omar Al-Somah, who recently joined the national team, plays for Saudi club Al-Ahli. Most other players turn out for clubs in Syria, mainly in Damascus.
Back from exile Omar al-Somah, scorer of the goal that sealed the playoff spot, was not picked because of his stance on the civil war. He is one of the deadliest Syrian strikers. In 2012, he showed support for Al-Assad’s rivals, which led him being labelled a traitor. He was ignored for five years since then and was recalled to the squad only last month.
Political undertone It is no secret that their government virtually selects the national team. It was evident when their then coach Fajr Ibrahim and midfielder Osama Omari turned up for a pre-match press conference in Singapore wearing t-shirts that had image of their president Bashan al-Assad. If a player expresses opposing political views, he is dropped — no matter how good he is. Tuesday’s game also featured unusual geopolitical undertones. Syria played a team backed by an Iranian state that has supported Assad in the conflict. The World Cup is being held in Russia, Assad’s other main backer.