Syria quest for World Cup 2018 is a sports tale in the backdrop of bloodshed

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Syrian pride: The Syria players celebrating their remarkable result in Iran (Getty).

“The second goal! The second goal for our national team! Allah, Allah, Allah. Who scored it? Who scored? Somah! It had to be Somah! It had to be Somah! The equalising goal.

“Pardon me! I’ve lost it! No one can stop them!”

Commentator Talal Bosnaly’s impassioned words, spoken through a flood of tears, gripped the globe as Syria defied both years of brutal conflict and the referee’s watch to keep their World Cup 2018 dream improbably alive. His emotional outburst on September 5 immediately caught like wildfire on social media.

Millions of views have been recorded of the drama which played out when striker Omar Al Somah – recently back with the national team after a self-imposed five-year exile – salvaged a decisive 2-2 draw in the 93rd minute of their final group game at continental heavyweights Iran. This late intervention secured memorable progression, Thursday’s opening face-off with Australia the next challenge on the path to an implausible tournament debut next summer.

Defy the odds once again versus the Asian Cup holders over two legs and the right to contest the inter-confederation play-off will be earned by a nation from which more than 300,000 have died and almost five million have been driven abroad after six bloodstained years.

Such ruination and the overhanging threat of danger means a competitive game was last held on Syrian soil when Lebanon were beaten 4-0 during Asian Cup qualifying in March 2010. For the Road to Russia, yet another obstacle cleared by this incredible team has been the fact ‘home’ is now found in Oman and Malaysia.

With loyalties spread between a bewildering spectrum of combatants and political parties, it is no surprise to learn the degree to which this has impacted squad availability.

Anas Ammo has utilised the connections earned as a former sports reporter to set-up the Free Syrian team. This independent side currently plays in Turkey and Germany, filling its ranks from the Syrian diaspora spread across Europe.

Links to elements within the national side remain strong. Ammo tells an illustrative tale to Sport360° via Skype from an unnamed member of the squad, independently unverified, of the panic caused by an unannounced trip back to their home country in the wake of the remarkable result earlier this month at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.

Ammo says: “After the Iran game one of the team managers told all the players: ‘We go to Damascus.’ All the players said: ‘What? We go to Damascus? That is impossible.’ “The team manager asked why it was impossible and they replied: ‘We are afraid’.

“Omar Al Somah was last in Syria five years ago; Tamer Haj Mohamad was last in Syria five years ago; Hamid Mido was last in Syria four years ago; Alaa Al Shbli was last in Syria six years ago.

“They thought that if they went to Syria, [President] Basher al- Assad would lock them in prison.

“They went to Syria for propaganda for the media. They thanked him for his support and they received $10,000 each as bonus.”

Since the Syria crisis’ initial blow out when protests calling for the removal of President Al-Assad were violently suppressed, sport has been intertwined.

The first victim of the popular uprising on March 18, 2011 was a keen footballer for Al Shu’la – Mahmoud al-Jawabra.

A report released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights this March alleged that 253 athletes had been killed by Syrian regime forces, one killed by Russian forces, five killed by Daesh terrorists, three killed by Fateh al Sham Front and one died through torture by Kurdish self-management forces.

Furthermore, the same document has declared 10 stadiums and sports halls across the country have either been turned into detention centres, suffered shelling or been transformed into weapons depots by the plethora of warring factions.

Veteran striker Firas Al Khatib’s young cousin was killed in an attack on Homs. Al Khatib made a shock first trip to Damascus in six years during August, ahead of starting both recent qualifiers.

Al Somah, the star performer in the Saudi Professional League with Al Ahli Jeddah, also called off a five-year absence at the same time.

Another impeding factor to success should have been the conditions in the Syrian Premier League, an embattled competition from which just four of coach Ayman Hakeem’s 21-man squad were drawn from in September.

From 2013 until the end of 2016/17, games were played either in Damascus or Damascus and Latakia because of security concerns.

This could have put the brakes on the developments experienced in the previous decade when Al Karamah were beaten in the 2006 AFC Champions League final. The inaugural AFC Cup final saw Al Jaish edge Al Wahda Damascus in 2004, Al Ittihad replicating their feat six years later.

Ahmad Azzam, 40, is steeped in Syrian football. He earned caps for the country, while he is the current assistant coach at Jaish – Syria’s most-decorated club.

He takes immense pride in the resolute stance he has witnessed.

“The Syrian football before the crisis was in a good position,” the celebrated ex-midfielder says. “It was evolving and we saw many Syrian clubs competing in Asia.

“We can say five years before the crisis, Syrian football was in a good position. After the crisis, things have become very difficult.

“But regarding the national team, there are many good circumstances today. We reached the top level in Asia.”

Within the safe zones established this summer and other cities in which pro Al-Assad forces dominate, Syria’s progression from no-hopers to red-hot contenders has, largely, been welcomed.

Iyad al Nasser is head of sports programmes for Syrian National Television. Like Azzam, he warmly regales about the shows of support and hope for the future witnessed.

“The look of the Syrian fans was magnificent after the Iran game,” the broadcaster says.

“In all squares in the Syrian territories, many screens were put up.

They put screens also in the main stadiums in the main cities.

“To give you an example of one of the biggest squares, Al Ameen in Damascus, there was 200,000 persons. Let’s say it was a national happiness which gives hope to the Syrian people that the harsh years of the war can disappear.”

War has not always hindered success on this continent. Iraq rose above their conflict to miraculously claim the 2007 Asian Cup.

Syria began qualification in May 2015 as war-ravaged outsiders, ranked beyond the world’s top- 100 by FIFA. They now stand four games away from a historic success that defies reason and shows the depths of human resilience.

“It would be a remarkable achievement, there’s no two ways about that,” says Paul Williams, a freelance journalist and co-host of The Asian Game podcast.

“If they go one step further, in a pure football sense it would be one of the greatest achievements by an Asian nation in a long time, almost equal to that of Iraq in 2007.

“But I think we have to be careful not to oversell the fairytale aspect of this story.”

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