Football is full of tales involving teams that have defied the odds to achieve the unexpected. The latest example was written during Asian zone qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, as Syria put together an inspired campaign reminiscent of Iraq’s against-the-odds AFC Asian Cup win in 2007.
Indeed, it was only the width of a post that denied Syria a pivotal win over Australia in AFC’s Russia 2018 play-off. Omar al Soma’s fierce last-gasp free-kick in Sydney pinged off the upright, with Socceroos’ goalkeeper Mat Ryan beaten.
Had Al Soma’s strike gone in, Syria would have progressed on away goals at the expense of the Asian champions to be just 180 minutes from Russia. Given Australia ultimately overcame Honduras in the intercontinental play-off with considerable more ease than they did Syria, one can only wonder what might have been.
The ongoing civil conflict in Syria meant the West Asians have led a nomadic existence in recent years, with their Russia 2018 home qualifiers staged on the other side of the Asian continent in Malaysia.
But, despite a modest record at international level, the Qasioun Eagles proved themselves to be highly resilient during their campaign for Russia 2018, conceding just eight goals in their ten third-round matches. Only continental heavyweights Iran and Korea Republic finished ahead of Syria, who edged Uzbekistan to third place in Group A on goal difference.
While maiden World Cup qualification proved a bridge too far, Syria were rewarded on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking with a highest-ever position of 75. It is an impressive increase from their lowest ranking of 151 just four years ago.
Syria midfielder Hamid Mido believes the team’s new status is just reward for their results. “The recent improvement in the FIFA World Ranking is notable and the position that we have now reflects the level of Syrian football, especially with the results that the national team achieved,” Mido told FIFA.com.
Syria will be keen to build on their World Cup qualifying run when they turn their focus to next year’s AFC Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, having qualified for the continental finals back in March 2016. Boosted by the return of Firas Al Khatib and Al Soma last year, as well as the form of recently crowned AFC Asian Player of the Year Omar Kharbin, Syria has every reason for optimism.
Equally, Syria are set to benefit from the experience offered by journeyman East German-raised coach Bernd Stange. The veteran Stange, who succeeded Ayman Hakeem as the team’s new coach last month, brings significant knowledge of Asian football after stints with Oman, Iraq, Singapore, and in Australia.
“There is great harmony amongst the national team now, as we have been playing together for a while,” Mido said. “This will definitely help us in the future with the new coach, who will take advantage of this coherence in the team.
“We now have a strong character in the team, especially after the return of Firas Al Khatib and Omar Al Soma, who helped us improve a lot in our attacking game.
“We have the Asian Cup finals next year and hopefully we can continue our good performances and improve more in the ranking.”
Syria narrowly failed to achieve first-ever qualification for the knockout stage of the Asian Cup during their last appearance in 2011. But it seems the Qasioun Eagles reserve their best for the big stage, and recent evidence suggests UAE 2019 could be another milestone moment for Syrian football.