A 109th minute goal from Australia’s veteran goalscorer Tim Cahill ended Syria’s World Cup dreams, after an inspiring journey that showed the power and spirit of football at its finest.
Syria went into the match having earned a respectable 1-1 draw against Australia in their makeshift home ground in Malaysia – despite it being 9,000 miles from their actual home, and closer to their opponents.
Anyone could have been forgiven for expecting a nervy and tense affair in this game, with each team defending resolutely and looking for a smash-and-grab winner.
However, the truth proved to be the exact opposite. The game exploded into life from the first whistle, with Syrian dreams being lived when star striker Omar Al Soma put the visitors ahead on 6 minutes.
Australia’s 37-year-old striker Tim Cahill, the country’s top goalscorer, was determined, however, to spoil the Syrian party.
He powered a header in on 13 minutes to quickly equalise the scores in the thrilling encounter. Each team was playing with their hearts on their sleeves, and it was clear just how much the chance of making the World Cup meant for each side.
The back-and-forth game progressed this way right until full time, signalling a period of extra time.
In that, Syria’s hopes were knocked when they saw Mahmoud Al Mawas given his marching orders for a second yellow card offence on 94 minutes.
Nevertheless, the fought on resiliently.
Numerical advantage proved to be enough for Australia, who on 109 minutes saw a Robbie Kruse cross met by the head of Cahill, who netted his and his country’s second.
Australians in the crowd erupted into celebrations, Syrians into tears.
The players on the pitch, though, weren’t going to give up the fight so easily.
First, on 118 minutes, Omar Al Soma collected the goal and started bearing down on the Australian goal, ready to once more fire his side into success – a single goal for Syria enough to take them through with away advantage – but a perfectly timed tackled from defender Milos Degenek saved his side.
However, the most heartbreaking moment for the Syrians came two minutes later, on 120 minutes. With virtually the last kick of the game, they were awarded a free kick some 25 yards out, left of centre.
Up stepped talisman striker Al Soma, who struck a beautiful strike that flew towards goal. Brighton goalkeeper Mathew Ryan in the Australian net was beaten, but the ball agonisingly struck the foot of the post.
Al Soma, who had scored a last-gasp goal to get Syria through qualifying, was inches away from taking Syria through to a final two-legged playoff before Russia 2018.
It wasn’t to be, and Australia claimed themselves victors – now set to face the fourth-placed CONCACAF side in another two-legged tie to win a place at the World Cup finals.
For Syria the dream was over, and the players finished the game in tears on the pitch, but while the dream hasn’t been realised every last one should hold with them such pride in what they achieved.
Their journey, for a team facing a brutal civil war back home and home fixtures thousands of miles from their actual country, they have showed to the truest extent the unity, commitment and spirit that football can bring.
No matter what occurs in the remaining qualifiers – with Argentina looking close to being knocked out and Iceland qualifying despite their tiny population – or even likely in the finals themselves, the Syrians and their journey have been the highlight of this World Cup.
It would have been the fairytale to have them present in Russia, representing their country, and they have deserved as much, but even despite missing out the players have achieved so much against such great odds and are heroes not just to Syria, but the game of football itself.