Syria’s national soccer team celebrates their recent draw against Iran in a World Cup qualifier. (AP: Vahid Salemi)
The Socceroos will go into their two-match World-Cup playoff against Syria next month as overwhelming favourites, but for the underdogs, just getting this close to Russia 2018 is a major achievement.
The West Asians are burdened by a deadly civil war and unable to play games at home.
Some argue that Syria should not be allowed to compete because of political interference but for many Syrians living in Australia the team’s heroics are providing a beacon of hope for a nation on its knees.
Syrians marked the 2-2 draw with Iran on September 5 with wild celebrations on the streets of Damascus, where thousands watched the game together on a large screen erected in public.
A 93rd minute equaliser put Syria through to a two-game qualification playoff against Australia.
The winner of the playoff will face the fourth-placed team from North and Central America in another two-legged encounter in November for a spot at Russia 2018.
No home games in seven years
War-ravaged Syria has not played a match on home soil since 2010, holding all of its third-round Asian qualifiers in Malaysia.
Football Federation Australia has confirmed the first-leg clash against the Syrians will be held at the Hang Jebat Stadium on October 5 in Malacca, with the return match to be played on October 10 at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
Journalist Paul Williams, who writes for various publications and co-hosts the podcast, The Asian Game, is one of those questioning whether Syria should be competing at all.
“Complaints have been made to FIFA,” he said.
“There have been Syrian athletes and former Syrian footballers who have gone to FIFA and given them a list of what they claim are war crimes that have happened against footballers in Syria.
“There’s a list of 38 players who’ve been killed, players who have disappeared, and that information has been presented to FIFA who simply say it’s outside of sporting jurisdiction and there’s nothing that they can do.
“I don’t know why they won’t get involved. It seems they’re only too willing to get involved in some cases.”
Williams said some players had been threatened into playing while others had refused to play because they did not support the Syrian Government.
Captain Firas Al-Khatib has now returned from six years on the sidelines while Omar al-Soma, who missed five, returned to score the goal that kept Syria’s World Cup hopes alive.
“There are grounds in Syria that are being used by the military. There are players being killed and players who have disappeared and are being tortured. Certainly just on the face value of that evidence then certainly they should be suspended by FIFA,” said Williams.
People gather as they watch a telecast of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers between Iran and Syria, in Damascus, Syria September 5, 2017. (Reuters: Omar Sanadiki)
Syrians finding hope in team’s success
Adelaide businessman Wajdy Jamal has already booked tickets to see Syria take on the Socceroos in Sydney and said he would be torn over what team to support.
“I think what we can take out of this is the hope, the hope that the Syrian people have got, and the hope that it’s given the country, the people,” he said.
“For us it’s a win-win situation. You know being Australian, you support your heritage and you support your national team here.”
Joining Wajdy in Sydney will be around 40 family members and, he predicts, another 60 friends from Adelaide’s tight-knit Syrian community.
That includes Louis Jamal who watched Syria’s draw with Iran while at a conference in Indonesia.
“At the last minute they scored that goal, and that was so surreal. I was on my own and I was just jumping on the bed and just going all over,” he said.
“To make it to this point is an achievement on its own. To go any further would actually be amazing.”
“I don’t think I’ll get another chance to watch a Syria-Australia game. Love the Australia side, love the Syrian fight, you know, I’ll be torn. I’m not sure who I’m going to go for.”
Team heavily influenced by al-Assad’s regime
Williams said the Syrian national team was heavily influenced by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — political interference that has seen other nations disqualified from FIFA tournaments.
There was no better example of Assad’s influence than when the then coach wore a t-shirt bearing Assad’s face to a press conference in 2015.
“The team managers have said repeatedly that they support the Assad regime. They are proud of their Government. They are proud of their President so there is no doubt that this team plays for Bashar al-Assad. They play under his guidance, under his rule,” Williams said.
“They say sport and politics shouldn’t mix but I think in this situation it’s very hard to divorce the two because they are so intrinsically linked.”
Yet despite his reservations, he said Syria getting closer than it ever has to the World Cup finals has had a unifying effect for its people.
“The players talk about uniting a nation and trying to forget the politics involved in the situation to bring the 24 million Syrians together,” he said.
“Sport should be used as a tool for good and it should be able to unite the forces and unite the tribes so hopefully that is the case and that is what happens with Syria.”
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