Against all expectations, the Syrian national football team has managed to keep its 2018 FIFA World Cup dream alive.
Omar Al Somah secured his team’s place in the playoffs after scoring a dramatic extra-time equaliser in the 93rd minute against group leaders Iran.
With the full-time score at 2-2 and South Korea failing to break a 0-0 tie against Uzbekistan, Syria has clinched third place in Group A.
Hopes for the football underdogs had mounted after their 3-1 win against Qatar last week, with supporters from across the world getting behind the team.
But it hasn’t been an easy run for the Syrian squad.
The ongoing war in Syria has prevented the team from hosting games on home turf, after a FIFA ruling decided it was unsafe for fans and players.
The team, coached by Ayman Hakeem, has instead had to find foreign hosts for their home matches.
Syria’s first games were played in Oman after no other Middle Eastern countries accepted to host games.
Macau initially offered to host Syria’s games but pulled out days before the nation’s first fixture.
Instead Malaysia stepped up and hosted the Syrian squad for its games against Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar.
Six of the players in the Syrian squad compete in the country’s national Premier League.
Incredibly, the league has gone ahead every season except for in 2011 during the Syrian civil uprising.
Domestic matches take place across Syria, including previously ravaged areas such as Aleppo.
The city’s Ri’ayet al-Shabab Stadium is used for matches while other venues have either been destroyed, used as military bases or to store artillery.
An investigative report by ESPN found at least 38 Syrian football players from the first two divisions have either been shot, tortured or killed in bombings by the Syrian government. Another 13 have been reported as missing.
The Syrian national team is considered to be under the control of President Bashar al-Assad, with coaches seen wearing t-shirts printed with the leader’s face in a past press conference.
FIFA, which officially takes a strong stand against political interference in football, has controversially remained silent on Assad’s involvement in the national team.