The fairy tale journey of the Syrian national team is one almost nobody could have predicted. Given their circumstances, any success would have been impressive, let alone what they’ve achieved.
Going into their first leg Asian playoff game with Australia, the embattled team – who play their home matches 9,000 miles away in Malaysia due to the ongoing civil war – are just four games away from a historic appearance at World Cup 2018 in Russia.
More impressively, their appearance in this game is far from a combination of luck, but rather from plucky determination and a dangerous attacking capability.
The Qasioun Eagles, as they are known, have overcome just about every challenge thrown at them so far, and there have been a lot of challenges.
Home games have to be played thousands of miles away in the Hang Jebat Stadium, a few kilometres outside the city of Malacca in Malaysia, where a few hundred Syrian fans turn up but can’t ever detract from the rather empty atmosphere of the stadium.
Nevertheless, the team has remained inspired and pushed on far further than any pundits could have predicted to find themselves in the position they are now.
Coach Ayman Hakeem’s team have improved markedly game on game. In the first seven fixtures, just two goals were scored by the Syrian. In the final three, they netted seven.
As the pressure for results mounted, the Syrians roared into life. The old method of sitting back and looking to nick a goal was done away with and a new attacking focus emerged.
The Syrian attack was further bolstered by the return of talented forwards like Firas Al Khatib and Omar Al Soma, who had previously refused to play for a team so closely associated with President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
With Russia in sight, and the possibility of a historic moment for the nation, these differences were cast aside and the team united under the banner of football.
Alongside Omar Khribin, the scorer of an Asian Champions League hat-trick earlier this week for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Syria have one of the most feared forward lines in Asia. There is power, pace and poise in the penalty area.
That was shown with late victories over Qatar and Uzbekistan, before their truest show of character came against Iran – who under the tutelage of Carlos Queiroz had not conceded a single goal in nine previous games in qualification.
Syria scored twice in the game, the second coming from Al Soma two minutes into second half stoppage time. It was a crucial goal, and yet was taken with an unerring poise and coolness.
Its this attacking threat that should leave Australia manager Ange Postecoglou concerned when the two sides come up against each other this week.
As much as Syria’s journey so far has seemed like a fairy tale, there is also merit and talent behind it. Enough, even, to possibly take them past Australia.
If so, then another two-legged playoff awaits with the CONCACAF qualifier, with a place at Russia 2018 up for grabs.
Should Syria manage it, then it would be the stuff of legends. It would be a testament to the power of football, of togetherness and team spirit overcoming all other adversity.
Even if they don’t manage it, their journey so far has already shown all those things – so much so that they really, truly deserve to be able to demonstrate it at the world’s largest stage, the World Cup Finals.