By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Bernd Stange has one goal above all others when he leads Syria to the finals of the Asian Cup next month — to put a smile back on the faces of the country’s war-ravaged people.
The veteran German coach was lured out of retirement earlier this year to take charge of the Syrians as they seek to build on their remarkable run to the verge of qualifying for their first World Cup finals last year.
And while a playoff loss at the hands of Australia ended those hopes – the 70-year-old is hoping to revive memories of that campaign at the continental championship in January.
“I was born after the war in Europe so I don’t know what it means,” Stange said.
“I saw war for the first time when I was coaching in Iraq and I saw people dying and now it’s a similar situation in Syria and you are depressed if you see these destroyed places, like Homs and Aleppo. You can’t say one word when you see that.
“You think about how many generations it will take to come back to normal life.
“Football has a chance. It’s not the most important thing now in Syria and there are other things that are more important, but football is a very small area where we are able to give people a smile.”
Stange has taken over a team that boasts some of Asia’s best attacking talent, with Omar Kharbin impressing not only for his country but also for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, his performances earning him Asia’s Player of the Year title in 2017.
He is joined in attack by the prolific Omar Al Soma, who has been the top scorer in the Saudi Professional League for three successive seasons for Al-Ahli.
Their presence, coupled with the determination to succeed on behalf of their war-torn country, means the Syrians are likely to once again be a force despite the problems at home.
They have been drawn to face the Australians again, while their west Asian rivals Jordan and Palestine complete Group B, with only the top two teams sure to advance to the last 16 in the newly expanded 24-team Asian Cup.
Despite the continuing difficulties in Syria, Stange said concentrating on the playing side of affairs is the key to avoid any potential off-field controversy.
“You have to be absolutely focused on your job and don’t get involved in any politics,” he said.
“Stay away from comments and don’t let people write wrong things about your job, speak only about football.
“If you do that you can do something because the players are very motivated to give their best and I think that’s what I’ve learned.
“Be absolutely focused.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)