Should they fail to win the group, they will still have the chance to finish second and keep their London bid alive by playing out a round-robin tournament with the second-placed teams in Groups A and B, with the winners progressing to a final play-off match with a team from the CAF confederation.
On the eve of the showdown with Malaysia, FIFA.com spoke to Syria coach Haitham Jattal about his side’s push for a place at London 2012, which has seen them defeat the much-fancied Japanese and trip up against Bahrain.
FIFA.com: What’s your mood going into Wednesday’s big game against Malaysia?
Haitham Jattal: We want the three points at all costs and we won’t be thinking about the other match or our defeat to Bahrain. We’ve had a training get-together and played a friendly match at home because we couldn’t find anywhere else to play. It’s not enough for a big game like this, although the Syrian FA have given us all their support. What with the situation the way it is at the moment, we can’t prepare properly, though we are trying to get some additional motivation from it.
Now that it’s no longer in your hands, what are your chances of qualifying for London 2012 directly?
I couldn’t really say. All I know is that we absolutely have to win this match, and it doesn’t matter whether we qualify directly or through the play-offs. What matters is getting there, though if the other match goes our way, then so much the better.
Syria’s defeat of Japan was one of the biggest shocks of the qualifiers so far. How did you manage it?
Unfortunately our preparations haven’t been the best through the qualifiers. Before the Japan game, however, we had a ten-day training camp in Jordan and a friendly match. We really analysed the way the Japanese play and we were able to identify their weaknesses. The players were determined and they carried out their instructions to the letter. That’s why we won.
And how do you explain your recent defeat to Bahrain?
I honestly feel all the teams in the group are pretty evenly matched with the exception of Japan, who are now a major force in world football and a cut above the rest. Even though none of the games ended in a draw, they were all very tight. Against Bahrain we lacked concentration and conceding an early goal unsettled us. We came back strongly in the second half but missed quite a few chances, while our opponents had just three attacks all game and scored the game’s only goal. We were also missing our striker Mardik Mardikian and Ahmad Alsalih, both of whom were suspended.
What are your chances of qualifying if, in the end, you do have to go through the play-offs?
The three teams in the play-off tournament will be just a step away from qualification and they’ll be doing all they can to get there. Both games will be finals for us and we have to win them. It’ll be a different competition with very little time between the matches, which should be to our advantage.
How difficult has it been for the team to have to play their home games in Jordan?
We’ve really missed our supporters, and I’ve always said that they’re our first player, not our 12th. We’ve been doing all we can to change the mindsets of the players and they’ve shown tremendous courage given the current situation. I’m not the first coach to go through something like this, and on a purely personal level it’s been a rewarding experience for me, thanks to the wholehearted support of the Syrian FA. I hope to achieve something big to put on my CV.
If Syria do qualify for London 2012, it will be their first Olympic Football Tournament, a major achievement.
The greatest players in the game, such as Lionel Messi and David Beckham, want to play in the Olympics and it would be amazing to rub shoulders with them. We’ll be giving our all to get there, either directly or through the play-off tournament.