Syria aim to spring surprise

Syria are just hours away from making their Korea 2007 debut against South American giants Argentina. For the Asian side, who are making their maiden appearance at a FIFA U-17 World Cup, it is the perfect opportunity to show the world how much their football has developed as they go about trying to secure a place among the tournament's top sides.

Their coach is Mohamed Al Jomaa, an amiable yet serious man, who quickly relaxes and opens up during the course of a spirited conversation with From his words, you sense the fierce passion he has for the game, as well as his affection for his players.

"I think I'm like a good psychologist to the players in that I want to help them develop. I've been working with them now for two and a half years, and during this time I've tried to prepare them not only to play football but also for life itself," says the coach.

Born on 10 June 1961, Al Jomaa was a respected professional at Syrian side Al-Karama, where he spent his entire 14-year playing career until retiring in 1985. That same year he took his first steps in coaching, taking charge of the club's U-14 side. After acquiring several junior titles and a good grounding, Al Jomaa gained further experience and knowledge in such footballing hotbeds as Brazil, Italy and Russia, to name a few.

Great expectations
Now, that international schooling appears to be paying dividends. "In my country, many coaches, players and fans think that this is the best Syrian side of all time. Moreover, the expect us to reach the quarter-final. I know that for many people that would be a surprise, but not for me," Al Jomaa says proudly.

"Nor are we lacking in match practice," adds the coach. "During the final stages of our preparation [for Korea], we played many friendlies against teams older than us, such as the Netherlands, Irak and Oman U-19 sides. And we didn't do too badly either. I think my players believe in what we're doing and are ready for this tournament to begin."

As fate would have it, Syria's first opponents are Argentina. Al Jomaa accepts this represents a big challenge but insists his side have a chance: "We know them, we've seen their games...They're a very complete team, plus they have pace and very intelligent players. We hope to counteract that with our energy and hunger. Would I have preferred to start off against Honduras? Yes, perhaps, as they are a second-tier side like ourselves. However, even though we respect Argentina, we don't fear them or anyone."

The coach goes on to say: "Argentina, just like Spain, have big reputations in the world of football. However, in this game, a reputation alone won't win you anything. Here, the team that runs more, shows the best technique and uses the best tactics will win. Iraq, for example, surprised everyone at the recent Asian Cup. Japan were the favourites for that title along with Korea, but Iraq took it one game at a time and went all the way. And how did they manage that? Because they fought in every game and showed great spirit and courage. We've also got spirit and courage and can be a difficult team for anyone."

Asked for a prediction, Al Jomaa prefers to look beyond the clash with the Albicelestes: "It's a difficult group, but I feel we could go through as one of the best third-placed sides or even as second in the group. Do we dream of becoming world champions? Of course and why shouldn't we?"