Asian Cup 2019: Having beaten the odds to qualify, Syria are aiming to surprise | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 04.01.2019
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Asian Cup 2019: Having beaten the odds to qualify, Syria are aiming to surprise

Despite war devastating the country for almost eight years, the Syrian national football team has qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup. Many Syrians are enthusiastic, others have politically justified reservations.

For the better part of a decade, hearing the world "Syria" would probably have conjured up thoughts of war, destruction and fierce fighting involving both domestic and international forces.

But over the last two years, Syrian footballers have painted a completely different image of their country to the rest of the world: one associated with sport. The team narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup after losing a qualifying playoff against Australia in October 2017.

Two Tim Cahill goals in the second leg ended Syria's dreams with a 2-1 aggregate loss , but it could have been so different. Striker Omar Al Soma smashed the upright with a free kick in the dying minutes, a matter of centimeters denying Syria a historic victory on away goals.

The campaign wasn't for nothing, however, as the World Cup qualifiers doubled up as qualifcation for the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Against all odds, Syria booked their place and will now tussle with Australia (again), Jordan and Palestine in Group B.

No escaping politics

Due to the war, the team has been forced to play all of its home matches outside of Syria, mainly in Oman and Malaysia. The very fact that a team could be formed and kept together under these circumstances is a remarkable achievement in itself.

Iran Syrien WM Quali in Teheran Mannschaft Syrien (Getty Images/AFP/A. Kenare)

Syria came close to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup

Syria have won over a lot of fans over the past few months – but by no means do all Syrians support them. Some were even backing Australia during that World Cup-qualifying playoff.

In the eyes of their critics, the team serve the administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who uses football as a propaganda tool to help divert people's attention away from the war. This in turn, so the argument goes, makes it easier for the government to quietly ignore demands both from within Syria and abroad for the president to be removed.

According to Egyptian sports journalist Hassan al-Mustakawi, sport and politics have become increasingly intertwined in Arab countries since the Arab Spring protests broke out in 2011. Some governments, he said, have repeatedly tried to instrumentalize their respective national football teams for their own purposes.

"They forget, however, that the team represents the citizens - not the government," he said.

Syrian footballer Jean Ramadan, who is currently trialing with a German club, told DW that "a lot of fans don't approve" of those using their football team as a political tool.

"But it is true that the football team belongs to all Syrians and not just a specific group," he said. "The fans just want to watch football."

The Syrian Football Association did not respond to DW's request for comment about the political dimension of the national team.

Fußball WM-Qualifikation Australien vs Syrien Fans (Reuters/D. Gray)

The Syrian team have won over a lot of fans, but for political reasons, not all support the team

Effective preparation

Outside politics, fans are excitedly preparing for their country's foray into the Asian Cup. In January of 2018, the Syrian FA announced that it had hired Germany's Bernd Stange to coach the national team and later organized a training camp in Austria, as well as a number of friendlies.

Some experts who follow the team believe that they have a good chance of making their mark in the UAE.

"The team can play a leading role," sports journalist Ubaida Nafie told CNN. "The players are in good shape and the technical and management staff are also effective."

Australia will likely top Group B but against Palestine and Jordan, Syria can be confident of finishing in second place and securing a spot in the knockout rounds. The four highest third-placed sides will also get out of the group stage, so the opportunity is there for Syria to make it past the opening stage for the first time in their history.

Yet Nafie expects much will depend on how the team prepare mentally for the tournament and deal with the pressure.

"That's why Syrian fans are tempering their expectations. They don't want to put unnecessary pressure on the team."

Good strikers, weak defense

Nafie is convinced that the team deserved to qualify for the Asian Cup, with the team's motivation a decisive factor as the players strove to represent their country honorably.

Fußball WM-Qualifikation Australien vs Syrien Torjubel (Getty Images/R. Pierse)

Omar Al Soma is Syria's most potent weapon up front

In Al Somah they possess one of the hottest strikers plying his trade in the Middle East. The 29-year-old has netted 128 goals in just 132 matches for Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli , including 11 goals in his 14 appearances this season. Only work permit issues denied him a move to England, while Saudia Arabia even tried to poach him for their own national team.

In defence, the team may find it difficult to compete with the best in Asia and they've only managed to win just one of their five matches in 2018 - a 1-0 victory over Bahrain. Yet this team has shown that it performs best on the big occasions. They drew with Iran, Japan and China during the World Cup qualifying year of 2017, lost narrowly South Korea and just missed out in that thrilling playoff against Australia.

Syria will be up against it in the UAE, but the team's desire and camaraderie could see "The Eagles" spring a few surprises at the 2019 Asian Cup.