A qualifying campaign that has defied civil war and internal splits has brought Syria within sight of a miraculous World Cup berth -- if they can overcome Asian champions Australia.
Syria were given little chance of making an impact in Asia’s qualifiers but after reaching the regional play-offs, they stand four games away from Russia 2018.
Playing their “home” fixtures in Malaysia because of their country’s civil war, Syria face Australia in Malacca on Thursday, before the return leg in Sydney next Tuesday.
The winners go into a two-legged clash with the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF federation -- currently the United States.
On their way to Thursday’s game in Malacca, Syria have scrapped to hard-fought draws against heavyweights South Korea and Iran, and wins over China, Uzbekistan and Qatar.
Coach Ayman al-Hakim has forged a resilient unit which has an added goal threat since the return from the sidelines of forward Firas al-Khatib, who had voiced support for the Syrian rebellion, and sharpshooter Omar al-Soma, whose long absence was also believed to be for political reasons.
“Reaching the Asian play-off is almost a miracle, no one expected us to reach this stage given the tough circumstances we face in our country,” al-Hakim told AFP.
“It shows the will that the Syrians have and their ability to achieve the impossible. We hope to fulfil the dream of reaching the World Cup. It’s the dream of every Syrian, every member of our team, whether the players, coaches, officials.”
Syria, ranked 75th, have never reached the World Cup before and they needed Soma’s injury-time equalizer against Iran last month to take them into the Asian play-offs.
Soma’s breakaway goal to make it 2-2 in the 93rd minute in Tehran left an excited Syrian TV commentator sobbing with happiness as he shouted his celebrations for two minutes.
But the team is not without controversy, backed as it is by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who remains in power despite a conflict which has since killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions.
When Syria played in Singapore in the early stages of qualifying, former head coach Fajr Ibrahim and midfielder Osama Omari fronted a press conference wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a smiling Assad.
Al-Soma and al-Khatib had been absent since voicing their support for the rebels fighting Assad’s forces, but their return this year under al-Hakim has galvanized the Qasioun Eagles.
Al-Soma is rated as one of Asia’s best strikers, while fellow marksman Omar Khribin bagged a hat-trick for his Saudi club, Al Hilal, in their 4-0 win over Iran’s Persepolis in the first leg of their AFC Champions League semi-final.
“Everyone knows the scope of the tragedy that our country is enduring, and which is reflected in all aspects of life, including sports,” al-Hakim said.
“It’s difficult for us to hold training camps abroad, or hold high-level friendly and warm-up matches.
“Arab and foreign experts predicted that we will be the weakest team in our group... All of these factors have had a positive impact on us. It nourished a defiant spirit, and we worked on the players’ psyche to fill the gaps of proper preparations and other things.”
Syria start as second-favorites against Australia, who have played the last three World Cups and reached the last 16 in 2006, losing controversially to eventual winners Italy.
The Socceroos missed out on automatic qualification on goal difference alone but they will be without their midfield talisman Mile Jedinak and have shown enough defensive frailty to give Syria hope.
“It’s a tough face-off with a strong Australian team known for its professional players and a style that differs from any team we have already faced,” al-Hakim said.
“I’m studying all their details to figure out the way we have to deal with them... mistakes are not allowed here, and although the Australian team is strong, we are used to facing the big teams, and are no longer afraid of playing away matches.
“There is no impossible in football and we have proven that... we have a chance to beat Australia.”