War-torn Syria on verge of World Cup fairytale

HONG KONG: Against all odds, Syria’s footballers have overcome more than six years of civil war and internal political rifts to raise hopes of qualifying for their first ever World Cup.

Forced to play their home games away due to security concerns, Ayman Hakeem’s Syria have embarrassed a succession of better-resourced opponents to sit third in Group A of Asian qualifying, behind leaders Iran and South Korea.

An unlikely win away to Iran on Tuesday coupled with defeat for South Korea by Uzbekistan in the final round would give Syria second spot and direct entry to the finals in Russia next year.

Even if results do not entirely go their way, Syria can still hold onto third spot and have a chance to qualify through two rounds of playoffs.

Political divisions threatened to gut the team early in the campaign, with players refusing to represent their country in protest over the actions of Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the conflict. But they have softened their stance, with veteran striker Firas Al Khatib ending his exile in March before Omar Al Soma was recently lured back to partner Al Hilal’s Omar Khrbin in attack.

Stadiums in Malaysia have offered sanctuary throughout the final phase of qualifying, with only a handful of Syrian fans able to offer their compatriots support.

Despite being perpetually on the road, the results have continued to stack up.

On Thursday, they defeated Qatar 3-1 at Hang Jebat stadium, eliminating the rich Gulf state and 2022 World Cup hosts from the race to Russia. Syria face a formidable task in Tehran against Iran that has yet to concede a goal in this qualifying phase.

Asian football is no stranger to war-affected nations making a big impact. Iraq won their first Asian Cup in 2007, at the height of the insurgency triggered by the United States-led coalition invasion in 2003. — Reuters

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