The Road From Damascus

This week’s international break has seen Mexico and Japan qualify for the 2018 World Cup, joining hosts Russia alongside Brazil and Iran. With teams across the world coming to the business end of the qualification process, the final set of AFC round three fixtures take place on Tuesday. Australia and Saudi Arabia are both vying to take the second automatic qualification place in Group B, with the third placed team in both groups progressing to an October play-off. Group A is set up for a tense and fascinating finish, with three teams still in with a chance of qualifying automatically alongside group winners Iran. South Korea, who have been regular World Cup attendees since 1986, face Uzbekistan, who sit two points behind The Red Devils. Korea have endured a difficult qualification campaign, losing three and drawing one of their four away games, while Uzbekistan have never beaten Tuesday’s opponents. Incredibly, the third contender for automatic qualification is Syria.

“It’s a dream that brings people together. It gives people a smile and helps them forget the smell of destruction and death”Bashar Mohammad, spokesman for the Syrian Men’s National Football team, can see the importance of a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, which would see the Arab Republic make their debut on the biggest stage in world football, and the respite it gives his fellow countrymen from the horror that has become their day-to-day existence since the civil uprising in 2011. Nearly 500,000 lives have been lost to the war in Syria, and this extraordinary qualifying campaign has taken place against a backdrop of national distress.

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Despite having their home games moved to Malaysia amid fears of safety for the Syria team and their opponents, The Qasioun Eagles have registered three wins and three draws from nine games in qualifying, are unbeaten at home and have an excellent chance of securing automatic qualification on Tuesday when they face group winners Iran in Tehran. Their impressive 3-1 victory over Qatar on Thursday, coupled with South Korea’s stalemate against Iran and Uzbekistan’s defeat to China, has blows the group wide open, and leaves three teams vying for second place.

Their success in qualification has been down to a clutch of talented and dogged players, none moreso than forward Omar Kharbin. The 23 year old, who plays his club football at Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, has scored nine goals in qualification, including seven in the second round as Syria finished runners up to Japan to head through to round three, securing qualification to 2019’s Asian Cup in the process. Like many of his international teammates, Kharbin plays his football away from Syria, with clubs in Egypt, Qatar, China and UAE benefiting from the talents of Syrian internationals.

“We want our players to play outside Syria, we need our players to play outside Syria”.
Tarek Jabban, Syria National Coach

The necessity for players to play outside of Syria is a direct consequence of the ongoing conflict in the country. Economic sanctions, and the fall of the value of Syrian currency, alongside a geographical shrinking of the league due to security fears, has meant that the Syrian football league is in crisis. The inability to play regularly has reduced the competitive nature of the league, and the resources available to Syrian clubs are minimal. The Syrian FA does not have the financial clout to pump money into the national game, however the government have donated funds to ensure the league continues – football is being used as a form of propaganda, and the idea that normal life is continuing in Syria suggests to the locals that the war is being won. In reality, the only opportunity for talented players to improve their game has been to move away. This isn’t always an option, as Omar Kharbin’s cousin Osama Omari has found. The leagues top scorer last season plays for Damascus based Al Wahda, and is unable to play in another country due to conscription.

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Whilst their success may come as a surprise to many, those with half an eye on Asian football will know that the game in Syria has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade. Despite being disqualified from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers for fielding an ineligible player, they were unfortunate to go out at the third round stage in 2010 on goal difference. They also gave a decent showing in the 2011 Asian Cup, finishing third in a group containing Japan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and recording a win against The Green Falcons. Their high point, though, came at the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Championships, as they beat Iraq in the final to lift their first international trophy.

There is a far darker side to football in Syria, in spite of the current excitement surrounding the national team. In 2015 ESPN delivered a report entitled ‘War Crimes Against Syrian Footballers’ outlining the details of at least 38 footballers in the top two Syrian divisions that had been shot, bombed, or tortured to death. There are 13 players still missing. There is an argument that the government’s interference in the national game contravenes FIFA rules, however the governing body – who it has been suggested back the Assad regime – have not sanctioned the Syrian FA. The report included interviews with several Syrian players, but this evidence was later criticised by the vice-president of the Syrian FA.

“The regime protects the Syrian people, and their problem is they are outside of Syria and represent only themselves”
Fadi Dabbas, Vice-President of Syrian FA

Despite the murkiness that surrounds the national team, the achievements of this group of players and coaches must not be understated. Their match in Tehran represents the country’s best chance of qualifying for a World Cup since 1986, when a 3-1 aggregate defeat against Iraq in a final round playoff ended their hopes of participating in Mexico. Achieving victory on Tuesday won’t be easy – Iran have a 100% record at home, have yet to concede a goal in the third round, and have only ever lost once to Syria, a 1-0 home defeat in 1973. Syria will also need to hope that Uzbekistan can avoid defeat to South Korea, but know that if they get the job done they will at the very least earn a place in the Fourth Round playoff.  If everything goes right for them it could be the most amazing story football has ever seen.

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