War-ravaged Syria has just made the World Cup play-offs

Against most expectations, the Syrian national team has a good chance of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time ever.

Following their 3 – 1 win against Qatar on Thursday (August 31), Syria, coached by Ayman Hakim, takes on group leaders Iran tomorrow.

A win for the Syrian team, combined with either a tie between South Korea and Uzbekistan or a favourable result for Uzbekistan, would grant the team a direct pass to the World Cup.

If South Korea beats Uzbekistan, Syria can still fight for a place during a two-round match against whoever comes third in the other Asian group in the World Cup qualifiers, currently held by Australia.

It has not been an easy run for Hakim’s team. The chaotic situation in Syria has prevented the team from hosting matches in their home country, a decision officially handed down by FIFA.

Instead, the team had to find foreign hosts for what should be their ‘home’ matches. The first games were played in Oman but for the following round no other country in the Middle East would accept to take the Syrians in. The solution was to look for a host further away. Macau initially accepted the role but gave up days before the kick-off. Finally, Malaysia stepped forward and received the Syrian squad for their previous matches against Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar.

Out of the 21 Syrian players selected for the most recent 2018 World Cup qualifiers, six compete in the Syrian Premier League. Apart from being suspended for one season during the 2011 civil uprising, the Syrian national championship has been held despite the war. These domestic matches take place in different cities across the country, including the most disputed areas such as Aleppo. The city’s Ri’ayet al-Shabab Stadium is used for matches while other stadiums have either been destroyed, used to store artillery or served as military bases.

Furthermore, an investigative report published by ESPN in May said that at least 38 Syrian football players from the first two divisions have been either shot, bombed or tortured to death by the Syrian government while another 13 were missing.

The Syrian national team is considered to be under the control of President Bashar al-Assad. During a past press-conference for the World Cup qualifiers, team members sent a direct message by wearing printed t-shirts with Assad’s face. FIFA, which officially takes a strong stand against political interference in football, has controversially remained silent regarding Assad and his team’s bond.

In Singapore, defiant Syria football coach sports Assad T-shirt https://t.co/EZJ59baTOG pic.twitter.com/g9BbyQ9THj— Zurairi AR (@zurairi) November 16, 2015

The debate on whether football and politics can be completely set apart is not new and it remains an issue for Syria’s forthcoming match against Iran, which could, after all, grant the team a ticket to Russia 2018.
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