Column: Syrian national team continues miraculous journey, provides hope where there is none

Syria's national soccer team celebrates at the conclusion of their match with Iran which drew 2-2 during their Round 3 - Group A World Cup qualifier at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Four matches.

That’s all the Syrian men’s national team needs to survive in order to advance to its first World Cup ever.

Syria’s journey throughout the World Cup qualifiers has been a perilous one. In the midst of a war that has now lasted over six-and-a-half years, Syria has played away from home in each-and-every single one of its games. Instead, by playing all of its “home” matches in Malaysia to avoid the dangers that still occur in Syria every day, the national team had a severe disadvantage compared to the rest of the teams in World Cup qualification.

On top of playing every game on the road, the Syrian national team has had several players who refused to play as a representation of the government regime. Firas al-Khatib and Omar Al Somah, among the best talents ever produced in Syria, exiled themselves from the national team for several years as a stand against the government. Mahmoud Dahoud, the best player ever born in Syria, has chosen to represent Germany at youth levels after moving there as a child. Basically, the best generation of Syrian soccer players and best shot at making a World Cup was torn apart by war and politics.

Yet somehow, the Syrians still fought through the second round of Asia World Cup qualifying and survived as one of the four best second-place teams. Moving onto the third round and being placed in Group A meant facing Asian powerhouses Iran and South Korea, while battling the likes of Uzbekistan, China and Qatar for the chance at third place to reach the play-off round.

After managing to stay relevant in the qualification through eight games, Syria sat in a tie for third place with Uzbekistan, with an advantage on goal differential. Most importantly, the team’s impressive journey to this point had caught the eye of al-Khatib and Al Somah enough to entice them back into the fold.

While their self-imposed exile was a stand against the government in a way, re-joining the team was much less of a political statement than it was as a representation of hope and peace for a nation torn into pieces. Their return meant, at the very least, a squad with a first-class striker in Al Somah and a legitimate captain and leader in al-Khatib. That would prove vital when the team needed it most.

Coming down to the last game of the third round, Syria had to face Iran in its capital of Tehran while Uzbekistan hosted South Korea. Since Uzbekistan had managed a draw, Syria had to draw with Iran to advance as the third-place team to the play-off round or win and advance straight through to the World Cup.

Iran’s defense was the strongest in Asia up to this point, having not allowed a single goal in the third round of qualifying. Yet miraculously, the Syrians took the lead in the 13th minute on a goal from Tamer Mohamd. However, a critical error just before the half allowed the Iranians to equalize through a Sardar Azmoun goal. Azmoun would score again in the 64th minute to sink Syria’s hopes, as it was unlikely they would snatch another goal against Iran’s defense.

Nevertheless, deep into stoppage time when the game was all but lost, Al Somah received a pass just inside the box and slipped his shot past Iran’s keeper to advance Syria to the play-off with basically the last kick of the game.

The commentary in this video, though in Arabic, speaks for itself. The commentator’s emotion is raw, and speaks volumes of how much the goal means to the people.

I could go on-and-on even more about how incredible it was that Syria just stuck with Iran and earned the draw to advance. But the true importance of this is how Syria’s performance in World Cup qualifiers has – even if only for short periods of time – united groups of people in Syria to watch games and cheer on their nation.

Facebook videos of my parents’ hometown of Safita, Syria showed the people celebrating through the streets like never before. People in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo cried tears of joy in celebration. The mere 2-2 draw against Iran felt like the biggest win in Syrian soccer history. And as it should.

The people of Syria realize that with two matches against Australia in October – and the fourth place team of CONCACAF should they defeat Australia – that the national team has a very real possibility of making the World Cup.

It could take another miracle or two to make that possibility a reality but if the Syrian national team can lock up their first World Cup berth, the people of Syria can unite a little more, even if only for 90 minutes every few days in June 2018.


Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.hanna@uconn.edu. He tweets @realchrishanna.