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Syria: The path to World Cup qualification

Oliver McManus writes about the challenges awaiting Syria in their attempt to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

A shrill whistle bounces off any idle material offering itself as a carrier: an accustomed sound that brings an end to any hubbub of activity with the opposition called to attention before scurrying behind the wall.

Each week small bunches would assemble in the face of an increasingly hostile home support as disquiet bubbled in the background. Pushed out of vision, that is, with hoarse whisperings of resistance drowned out by a suppressive mouthpiece. An iron will combined with sanguine imagination drove the opposition forward as their numbers quickly grew.

On the line stood, and stands, the future of Syria. Each whistle proceeds the latest of blasts aimed at a repeatedly repressed, increasingly disheartened, yet no less bitterly embattled, round of citizens.

Tribal lines have been drawn between supporters of President Bashir Al-Assad and those opposing his brutal regime for nine blood-shot years. War has raged on in pockets with the population capitulating through death or displacement and yet nothing has stood still. Despite the disarray, Syrian society has continued to strive for some sense of normality.

2,500km to the south west of Damascus, another whistle blows. The reaction to it is similar to a man but this is a sound of hope and optimism: not of terror and persecution. Syria’s national football team can no longer play on home soil but, based in Dubai, they are proving to be the most unlikely source of inspiration.

Football has always been a large part of the Republic’s culture but success on a notable scale has remained elusive. The Eagles of Qasioun – a mountain in Damascus that has subsequently become a military and strategic camp for Assad’s government forces – have flown with clipped wings since their international debut in 1949.

Since 2014, and an all-time low ranking of 152nd, the nation has displayed an impressive commitment to their younger players and are established in the upper echelons of Asian football.  The team were allowed to breathe and develop over the course of their qualification to the 2019 Asian Cup – a 36 month process that saw them rise 78 places. Their eight qualifying games saw them notch 26 goals and marked the birth of striking talisman Omar Kharbin.

Syria’s forward Omar Khrbin controls the balls during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group B football game between Syria and Palestine at the Sharjah Stadium stadium in Sharjah on January 6, 2019. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

The bearded forward burst onto the scene in 2015, aged just 21, with goals against Oman, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Singapore. From those early, energetic stages, Kharbin has grown to be a level-headed presence on the pitch with exactly the sort of composure required to match Syria’s lofty ambition. Reminiscent of a Syrian Drogba, the 26 year old has a natural knack of holding up play and nodding the ball into the perfect position: usually for Omar Al Somah to apply the finishing touches.

Overseeing their attempted qualification to the Qatar World Cup in 2022 is Nabil Maâloul. The 57 year old Tunisian was appointed to the post in March following two stints in Qatar either side of spells with his national team and that of Kuwait. Maâloul brings a track record of success to the country and the Syrian Arab Federation for Football were pleased to have recruited from outside their borders.

For a long time the governing hierarchy felt that an international manager was required to push the team on. Form would beg to differ, however, with Fajr Ibrahim inspiring the squad throughout his four spells as boss. When he was appointed in 2019, to replace outgoing Bernd Strange, there was a reticence to commit to him long-term: hence a 12 month contract.

Ibrahim consistently produced positive results in qualification but suffered from barren patches in friendly games that fed his critics. Indeed he was always viewed by the SAFF as a stop-gap until a more ambitious appointment could materialise.

Distant but not disconnected from the desecration of their homeland there is real cause for genuine optimism. Five wins from five games sees them atop Group A in the second round of qualification: China, the Philippines, Maldives and Guam have all been sunk by the Eagles. There are, of course, further hurdles to navigate: in order to qualify for the World Cup they will have to finish in the top two of a six team group in the third round.

There is a tangible lack of fear within this squad, and how could it be otherwise after all they’ve experienced. Against each fresh opponent there is deep belief that they will grind out a result and, to date, they almost always have. In 2018 their hopes of qualification shattered with eleven minutes to go: Tim Cahil, the thorn in their side, sending Australia to Russia after Al Somah had put the Syrian’s 2-1 up on aggregate.

In the three years since that excruciating night there is a renewed heart and grit at the soul of the squad. Indeed these young Eagles are spreading their wings far and wide: plying their trade from Kuwait and Qatar to the Netherlands. Where once there was a love and enthusiasm for the game, resembled in a high-tempo, youthful style of play, there is now a cultural appreciation for the nuances of the sport.

Their performances offer a beacon of hope and are frequently the only representation Syria has on a world stage. When those 11 players step out onto the pitch there is a distraction, if you will, from the turmoil at home. More pertinently, though, their continual presence as a punchy underdog serves as a reminder that the people of Syria aren’t going away.

Every goal scored on the world stage preserves the oppressed Syrian voice from being silenced: each victory rooted in the grassy plains of Damascus turned to cemeteries through vitriolic warfare. The cruelest irony remains that, for all the national team’s inspirational defiance, few Syrians are able to follow their story. Yet, more than ever, football has shown itself to be Syria’s last truly global voice.

Read all our Opinion articles here.

Oliver McManus

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