Syria national team has qualified from the third stage of the World Cup qualifiers, following a dramatic draw with Iran in Tehran last month, after a 93rd minute goal.
The Syrian success comes after a vast investment by Assad's regime in the national team, turning a Cinderella story into international news - a squad from the war-torn country that is doing the unbelievable.
The heroic journey of the Syrians has included the return of the rebel-supporting football stars - Firas Al-Khatib and Omar Al-Somah. After a large campaign that called for their comeback and included graffiti all over Syrian cities, the pair became national heroes for many, by indicating that they made their comeback "for the people of Syria, wherever they are, regardless of politics".
Together with rising Asian star Omar Khribin from Al-Hilal, the three form the core of the Syrian team and its attacking force. Tamer Haj Mohamad, goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma and full backs Amro Al-Midani and Ahmed Al-Saleh are all integral parts of a team that will look to shock Australia at Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia.
Their rivals, Australia, are more than favorites for this double-header, but the Syrian team will be looking to snatch another unlikely surprise, and book their tickets to the World Cup in Russia. Tim Cahill, Tom Juric, Massimo Luongo are all familiar names in Asian and world football, and will look to secure a positive result in Malaysia before taking the encounter to Sydney on October 10.
After qualification to the playoffs, the Syrian FA looked for a different venue to host their home game against one of Asia's top sides, but FIFA has yet to approve their suggestions to play at Irbid in Jordan, Muscat in Oman or Abu-Dhabi in the UAE.
The FA wanted to host the match in a location with a large Arab population, in order to provide the players with a supportive and warm atmosphere, but will have to settle for the half-empty stadium in the outskirts of the Malaysian city of Malacca. Nevertheless, Syria has yet to lose in this stadium during their World Cup qualifying campaign. At all.
If the Syrians continue their historic run and get past the Socceroos, they will meet the fourth-ranked team in the CONCACAF group (North and Central America) that would be one of Honduras, Panama or the USA. There is yet a possibility that Bashar al-Assad's Syria and Donald Trump's USA will compete for a spot in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
For or Against, It's Complex
But not everyone is happy with the Cinderella story from the Mediterranean shore.
With the successful run of the Syrian national team in the World Cup qualifiers, many sports figures, journalists and fans have shared their opinions in the matter. Many try to show it as a simple story of a ‘good side versus a bad side’, but the truth is that it’s much more complex than that.
After the match with Iran, tens of thousands hit the streets of Damascus to celebrate Syrian football's greatest ever achievement. The celebration was unique. Assad regime of course used it to highlight his "Liberal lifestyle Syria", but it wasn't only about his public relation efforts. It contained more. It contained the sorrow of millions and their will to celebrate, after years of sufferings - regime supporters, rebels and refugees alike.
For few moments, he Syrian national team has made Syrians all over the world, refugees too, to feel reunited, and has planted hopeful seeds in many hearts. But, on the same time, human rights reports continue to detail hundreds of athletes and footballers that have been detained, imprisoned any d killed by the Assad regime, together with multiple horrible crimes it has committed against its own people. Therefore, not all Syrians are thrilled with the sportive glorification of the current government of Syria, especially; of Bashar Al-Assad's exploitation of the football team as a PR tool to cover his actions during the civil war.
The discussion whether to describe the success of Syria's national teams as a purely footballing achievement - or as a political gain - has become a burning issue of international football in recent months.
The story of the Syrian national team is not a black & white issue. Wishing the team’ success doesn’t necessarily means you support Assad’s regime, or against it. This NT has much larger significance within the Syrian people in Syria, in the ‘Free Syria’ areas and in the diaspora. Aside its sportive value and its rich history, Football, in many places in the world, is people’s opium – blinding them from seeing the problems and maneuvering their or in this case - a PR tool by the Assad’ regime, but it is also a human living connection, completely intuitive, of people from all over the world.
Across the MENA region millions of people are routing for Syria’s success today, even though they condemn the horrible crimes committed by the Syrian government during the ongoing civil war. Syria’s victory can connect Syrians in Europe, in Jordan, in Australia, in Syria itself, whether in Damascus or Dara’a. In addition, the Arab society as a mass, do believe that, after years of war, deportation, forced migration and horrors - the people of Syria are deserved to feel pride, wherever they are, no matter who they support. Even for a few minutes.