Spirited Syria fall short at U17 World Cup – but protect pride

Backed by most of the crowd, Syria pushed forward after the halftime break with a tactical change to a more orthodox 4-4-2

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Syria’s under-17 team went down 4-1 against Paraguay in its opening group match at the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile.

Despite being 2-0 down early on, Syria continued to compete admirably. Captain Al-Rahman Barakat was bright and positive in possession as the Syrians racked up 15 shots on goal over the 90 minutes.

The one that did find the net, from Anas Aji, may have been just a consolation on paper, but it would have meant the world to the side in red.

Backed by most of the crowd, Syria pushed forward after the halftime break with a tactical change to a more orthodox 4-4-2.

They had the legs, guts and determination over Paraguay, but the South Americans were technically stronger and more incisive in attack, as shown by their chances in the first 20 minutes.

However, at 62 minutes, Syria’s euphoria was palpable. A long, high ball toward the front pair was not dealt with by the Paraguay defense, and Aji connected brilliantly, drilling left-footed into the corner of the net.

His fervent celebration alongside his teammates was a perfect still image to send back to his homeland. The joy was short-lived, however, as three minutes later the score was 3-1.

Although Paraguay went on to score another in stoppage time, the Syrians will proud of their efforts at their second U17 World Cup after appearing in Korea in 2007.

The group also contains the impressive France and New Zealand – the former includes the son of Zinedine Zidane, Luca.

Emerging talents

While Syrian football has been ravaged by war, youth football has thrived, a symbol of hope and opportunity amid poverty and destruction.

Syria reached the last four of the AFC U16 Asian Championship to book a place at the U17 World Cup in Chile.

The tournament, which took place in Thailand last year and was won by North Korea, saw Syria progress out of the group stages against Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Syria beat group-winner Iran to progress.

Uzbekistan was dispatched in the knockout stages, before the technically refined South Koreans won 7-1 in the semis.

“Our preparations weren’t very smooth at all, and we weren’t able to play a single international friendly. We had to make do with a training camp in Kuwait, during which we played two local teams,” head coach Mohammed al-Attar told FIFA.com.

“The Syrian Football Association did all it could to organize matches abroad, but it just didn’t happen.”

So without appropriate preparation, qualification for the U17 World Cup was an extraordinary success in itself.

Domestic football has somehow managed to continue in the areas around the capital Damascus, but facilities and infrastructure have been destroyed. The whole 2010-11 season was postponed after the outbreak of conflict.

As the flow of refugees to Europe has intensified, more players have used football as a tool for integration amid a new language, culture and environment.

One particular story is that of U17 captain Mohammed Jaddou, a Syrian midfielder who found refuge in Germany.

Jaddou fled Syria to Europe through Turkey. His exceptional talents have been noted: Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund have made moves to sign him on a professional contract.

However, his status in Germany prevents that. Jaddou and Syria will fly the country’s flag at the U17 World Cup, which offers the perfect platform to enhance the opportunities of his teammates, and offer a modicum of relief for his compatriots who will be watching.

“Qualifying for the World Cup has been a great achievement as far as I’m concerned,” Attar said before his side arrived in Chile.
Whatever happens next for the Syrian side – likely elimination at the group stage – football again proves to be a unifying force for the country during times of hardship and civil war.