There hasn’t been much good news to come out of Syria in recent years. What started off as anti-government demonstrations in early 2011 quickly escalated into a civil war as the governments’ violent crackdown began to intensify relations in the country causing citizens to fight back against proposed regimes.
Four and a half years later and there is no sign of an end to the conflict with an estimated 200,000 Syrians being killed and over four million refugees now desperately fleeing the country in search of a better life.
This sorry state of affairs has had an obvious detrimental impact on the countries sporting culture. Prior to the conflict, Syria’s National Football Team had been rapidly improving – a strong display in 2010 World Cup Qualification was followed up with them achieving qualification to the 2011 Asian Cup for the first time in 15 years.
The tournament took place in Qatar where Syria picked up an impressive win against Saudi Arabia but eventually succumbed to a group stage exit after defeats to both Japan and Jordan.
A few months after this, the conflict began and it was clear to see that football was to take a back step in the country as the situation intensified, with a number of Syrian players either fleeing the country or committing themselves to the revolution.
Alongside this, the Syrian Premier League was forced to suspend the season midway through after many players and staff had left the country and a number of clubs were unable to pay the wages of any of the remaining players.
The National Team was facing a huge decline, forced to play their home games in neighbouring Jordan and Iran, the nation was disqualified from 2014 World Cup Qualification after they fielded an ineligible player in the First Round against Tajikistan leaving them without any major tournament qualifier for the next 18 months.
Qualification for the 2014 Asian Cup began in 2013 and the scars of the Syrian Football Team were plain to see as they finished in 3rd position, eight points behind runners-up Jordan.
All this meant that in September 2014, Syria had reached its lowest ever FIFA World Ranking of 152 behind the likes of Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.
The draw for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers saw Syria introduced in Round two in a five-team group stage alongside Afghanistan, Cambodia, Japan and Singapore with the top two teams advancing to the next stage.
This was also the first time that the Asian Football Confederation had integrated both World Cup and Asian Cup Qualification into one, so a higher performance in World Cup Qualifying could potentially result in a place in the 2019 Asian Cup.
On June 11th 2015, Syria’s qualification hopes got underway in Iran against Afghanistan – a nation similarly affected by conflict, and, as a result, cannot play their home games in Afghanistan, yet the Afghanis have made huge strides in the last five years, in stark contrast to their opponents.
This seemed to spark a turning point, Syria ran out 6-0 winners after an electric first half performance. The extra icing on the cake – fellow group stage rivals Japan being held to a 0-0 draw at home to Singapore.
Optimism was growing for ‘The Eagles’, with influential players such as Raja Rafe and Abdelrazaq Al Hussain returning to the line-up. On September 3rd 2015, in front of a crowd of a paltry 100 people in Oman, Syria hosted their second qualifier against Singapore.
A 59th minute goal was enough for Syria to scrape over the line with another three points leaving them top of the group before a trip to Cambodia for the next qualifier five days later. This match ended in similar fashion to Afghanistan with Syria firing out the blocks with four goals before half-time and becoming eventual winners with a 6-0 victory.
Syria’s next opponents in October will be a different kettle of fish – they take on the Asian powerhouse that is Japan in Oman, their first big test of the qualifying campaign.
Their opponents to date may not have been the most challenging, but nevertheless Syria have a maximum 9 points, and a total of 13 goals scored and zero conceded, a record that will give them a huge morale boost going into the next international break.
Despite the war and conflict that still engulfs Syria, the country’s football team seems to be on its road to recovery, despite still being in an adverse position where every game is an away game until they can finally be allowed to play their home games in Syria again.
Their key players are back playing again and they even have a number of young prospects shining through the First Team, Moayad Ajan is only 22 but has become one of their highest rated defenders, whilst 21-year-old Omar Khribin is their top goalscorer this campaign with three goals and he now has nine goals in 21 appearances.
The Syrians never reached a World Cup and it probably will not happen during this campaign, but the situation behind the national team and their impressive redemption has provided a glimmer of hope for Syrians and redeemed a little pride back in to a nation that has been torn apart by conflict.
There is still a long way to go if Syria are to really make a challenge for the 2018 World Cup but they are on the right path. They already have one foot in the next round which will be another Group Stage but this time will feature a number of more hardened opponents such as the likes of Iran, Australia or South Korea.
But to come from where they have in the past few years shows great courage as a nation and once again proves that football can provide such a welcome distraction in order to forget about all the problems surrounding a nation succumbed by conflict and war.