Syria’s national soccer team is on its way to making history as it seeks the country’s first World Cup berth. After a Cinderella story that saw Syria go from one of the last-place teams to contender in its group qualifiers, where it faced formidable squads from South Korea, Iran and others, Syria worked its way past Uzbekistan, China and Qatar to earn a spot in the playoff rounds. It will face a struggling Australian squad in the first of a two-leg competition Thursday. If Syria can get past the Socceroos, it will then go on to face a team from the Caribbean or the Americas, possibly the United States.
That Syria even made it this far, though, is astounding considering the turmoil in the country that has been engaged in a bloody civil war in recent years.
Even Syrian fans could hardly believe the team’s success. One enthusiastic sports commentator was reduced to tears after Syria striker Omar Al-Somah scored an equalizer against Iran in September, ensuring Syrians a playoff spot.
As the team readies to face Australia on Thursday, however, there’s even more riding on the players’ shoulders.
“The important thing is that the team is determined to try and qualify for the World Cup,” Syria striker Omar Khribin told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “We have played against some very strong teams so far . . . We competed well against them and proved that we are also a strong team.”
Khribin added: “We know that we still have work to do, but we are ready for whatever happens.”
For some Syrian soccer fans, however, rooting for the team presents a moral conflict. Controversial Syrian President Bashar Assad has frequently and publicly cheered on the team, while simultaneously leading a war that’s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens, according to United Nations estimates.
“I understand people’s need for a happy event linked to Syria and their true desire to be united,” Syrian journalist Hala Droubi said during a Facebook chat last month (via the Los Angeles Times). “But at the same time, anyone who knows Syria well, knows that in Syria there are no independent institutions, and that includes sporting institutions. . . . Considering this team as one that is above politics and a national team that unites people is a big lie and part of a certain propaganda.”
Syria’s players, however, bristle at the accusation that they’re a political tool of the state.
“We have nothing to do with politics,” striker Firas Khatib told the Times. “We are representing the Syrian national team. We represent every Syrian citizen.”
Because of the ongoing conflict, though, Khatib and his teammates haven’t been able to play a single game in Syria. Instead, they’ve had to find a makeshift host country in which to play “home” games. Thursday’s game against Australia is set to take place in Malaysia, which offered to host Syria’s “home” matches after Macau withdrew a 2016 offer to host the squad. (The southern Chinese territory didn’t cite Syria’s civil war as the issue, only noting it “could not reach a consensus with Syria” regarding the hosting, the South China Morning Post reported last year.)
Australia, which has qualified for four World Cups, including the past two in 2010 and 2014, won’t be a walkover. But Syrian players remain confident they have what it takes to continue their Cinderella story.
“Australia may have many prominent players who are known for their individual talents, but we have the enormous potential that comes from performing as a group, as well as the individual skills of our players,” Syrian midfielder Mohammed Zaher Midani said (via the AP). “And we have a huge motivation — which is to make the Syrian people happy.”