A last-gasp equalizer from Omar Al Soma booked Syria an unlikely place in the World Cup playoffs. The war-torn country has not been able to play a single game at home throughout the campaign.
Going in to Tuesday night’s last Round 3 qualifier, Syria could guarantee at least a playoff spot with a win, while the game between Uzbekistan and South Korea would also play a part in determining their fate.
But they were up against Iran – the government’s ally in the long-running conflict but a fearsome opponent on the pitch in Tehran. The home side had already qualified for Russia 2018 as group winners and hadn’t conceded a World Cup qualifying goal for 18.5 hours.
But it took Syria just 13 minutes to make their mark, Tamer Mohamd opening the scoring for the visitors.
His side must be used to being the away team by now. They haven’t played a match on Syrian soil since a friendly against Iraq in December 2010 and have played all their ‘home’ qualifiers over 7000 kilometers away in largely-empty venues in Malaysia.
Despite that, reports before the game suggested the national team had offered a ray of hope to a country divided, with TV screens erected across the capital Damascus.
“All across Syria, from the mostly Kurdish-held northeastern city of Hasakeh to the southern province of Daraa, a cradle of anti-regime protests that degenerated into all-out war, the Syria-Iran showdown is a big talking point,” wrote news agency AFP.
The chat must’ve turned gloomy around halftime, as a brace from Iran’s Sardar Azmoun left the fairytale looking like it would go without a happy ending.
With Uzbekistan and South Korea deadlocked and the fourth official preparing to lift up the board indicating injury time, Syria looked out of contention, with the Uzbeks set to take the playoff spot.
But Al Soma, who returned from a self-imposed five year exile from the national team against Qatar last week, had other ideas. The striker received the ball in space on the right edge of the box and drove low under the keeper before his teammates, substitutes and coaching staff piled on as he sunk to the ground in joy.
Syria will now play Australia in a two-legged playoff next month. Should they progress once again, they'll play a team from a different continent in a straight shootout to qualify for their first World Cup.