People gather and cheer as they watch the 2018 World Cup qualifiers between Iran and Syria, in Damascus on Tuesday (05/09). (Reuters Photo/Omar Sanadiki)
Spirited Syrians Battling to Achieve World Cup Dream
BY :MICHAEL CHURCH
SEPTEMBER 07, 2017
Hong Kong. Syria's team spirit has kept the war-torn nation in contention to qualify for their first soccer World Cup and Ayman Hakeem's side will need to muster more of the same attitude to deliver a storybook ending to their remarkable journey.
For the fourth time in five games Syria scored in the dying seconds when they met Iran on Tuesday (05/09) as Omar Al Soma slid the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs to earn a 2-2 draw that sets up a two-legged playoff with Australia next month.
Since March, Qatar, China and Uzbekistan have all been on the receiving end of last-gasp goals from the Syrians as the country's World Cup dream moved closer to reality.
A 91st minute Omar Khrbin penalty secured a 1-0 win against Uzbekistan while Ahmad Al Saleh’s curling free kick three minutes into added time salvaged a point against Marcello Lippi's China as the Syrian bandwagon gained momentum.
Mahmoud Al Mawas continued the trend last month when he scored a decisive late third in a 3-1 victory over Qatar.
This time it was Al Soma, who only returned to the squad last month after a self-imposed exile due to his stance on the civil war at home.
The 28-year-old slipped the ball into the net in the 93rd minute to empty the Syrian bench in celebration and seal third place in the group and entry into the playoffs.
"Hopefully we can continue along this road as we have two important matches and I hope we can continue with our good performances," said the Saudi Arabia-based striker.
"I want to thank my team mates, who were heroes as they put in a great performance."
If Syria do get past Australia they will then face an intercontinental playoff against a Concacaf team with the winners securing a place at next year's World Cup in Russia.
Syria have had to do things the hard way, with soccer’s world governing body FIFA not permitting the team to play at home due to the continuing security concerns in the country.
Malaysia has hosted Syria's matches in the final phase of qualifying, leaving the fans to follow the team from afar.
The political situation has also been reflected in the make-up of the squad as the qualifying campaign has evolved.
Veteran forward Firas Al Khatib, who had refused to join up with the team due to his opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, ended his boycott in March, leaving Al Soma as the last remaining high-profile stay away.
His stance softened, however, and the Al Ahli striker - who has been top scorer in the Saudi league for each of the last three seasons - relented in August, returning for the 3-1 win over Qatar last week.
Al Soma’s influence was even more telling on Tuesday as it was from his free kick that Tamer Haj Mohamad eventually opened the scoring before Sardar Azmoun’s double put Iran in front, leaving Al Soma to become the hero in the final seconds.
"We tried our best to qualify directly but, as you saw, we have played against the best team in Asia and we managed to score twice against them despite the fact that they hadn't conceded in the third round," said Hakeem.
"We proved that we are a good side and despite all the difficulties that we had we managed to get a good result. I hope that we can continue our dream in the playoffs and qualify to the World Cup."
Sydney's Olympic Stadium will host the second leg of Australia’s World Cup qualifier against Syria in October and also the home tie in the intercontinental playoff if Ange Postecoglou's side make it that far.
The Socceroos failed to qualify automatically for next year’s finals in Russia after they could only sneak a 2-1 win over Thailand in their final match in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia then beat Group B winners Japan 1-0 in Jeddah later on Tuesday to clinch the second automatic spot, consigning Australia to the third-placed playoff against Syria.
"We are all disappointed that we did not achieve direct qualification from our group but we are confident we can still make it to Russia," Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said in a statement on Thursday.
"It's just a longer, harder road but we are focused on supporting Ange, his support staff and the playing group.
"We are experienced in the challenges of being on the road for away games but being at home brings our players in from the four corners of the globe and we expect it to be a big occasion for the football family and the nation."
The first leg of the final round of Asian qualifying will be played on Oct.5, with the second leg in Sydney on Oct. 10.
Syria have been playing their "home" World Cup qualifiers in Malaysia because of the security situation in the war-torn country.
The winner then faces the fourth-placed side from the North and Central America Concacaf region, which is currently the United States with two matches remaining, in a two-legged playoff in November.
Australia have featured in the last three editions of the World Cup finals.
Reuters with additional reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Sydney