Despite the distractions of their country’s tragic internal situation, the Syrian national team seem determined to prove that football can rise above the most difficult of circumstances. Indeed, on the back of their victory at the 2012 WAFF Championship in December, Syria leapt up eight places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in January this year.
Eye-catching though it was, Syria’s rise through the rankings tells only part of the story. This international success is being matched by a jump in the quality of performances by Syrian players plying their trade in foreign leagues, as well as the emergence of a group of Syrian coaches winning plaudits for achievements in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
The WAFF Championship win encouraged a new wave of Syrian players to leave their homeland to seek glory across Asia. In Bahrain, striker Ahmad Al Douni and compatriot Mahmoud Al Mawas are being hailed for their impact at Riffa, while midfielder Mohammed Radwan Qalaji recently won the country’s King’s Cup competition with Muharraq. Over in Iraqi club football, which plays host to a number of Syrian expatriates, front-man Raja Rafe is doing wonders with fourth-placed Zakho.
But it is another forward, Firas Al Khatib, who has captured the most attention. Signed two months ago by China PR giants Shanghai Shenhua, Al Khatib’s stellar start for his new club has done much to bolster the reputation of Syrian football on the continent.
Al Khatib made his name in Kuwait, playing for Al Arabi and Al Qadissiyah and twice finishing as the league’s top scorer. A move to Qatar’s Umm Salal lasted just one season, after which Al Khatib returned to Al Qadissiyah where he remained until a September 2012 switch to Zakho in Iraq.
Yet the 29-year-old had his eyes on a move east and, before long, he was all set to begin another new adventure. “It was the right decision,” he told FIFA.com. “That’s because the Chinese league is full of quality, in terms of both players and coaches alike.
“Take Shanghai Shenhua for example,” he went on. “The coach is Sergio Batista, a former Argentinian national coach, and last year Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba were playing for the side. That gave me all the encouragement I needed to join the club and play in China, which has a very strong domestic competition, where I can gain experience and boost my profile.”
It might be a demanding league, but the 1.72m striker has had a terrific start. Scorer of three goals in five appearances, including a double against leaders Shandong Luneng in their first defeat of the season, Al Khatib is feeling good.
“I’ve managed to fit in well with the other players,” he explained. “I’m currently very comfortable with the team. The way I see it, a player needs to get off to a good start at any new club. It helps him find his footing, keep hold of his place and gain the experience he needs - and that’s what has happened to me.”
Al Khatib was born in Homs, a city that has experienced much pain over the past two years. And though his various moves have required him to adjust to new customs and habits, not to mention a new language on this occasion, the striker is keen to emphasize how much he and other expatriate Syrian footballers have been able to achieve.
“Syrian football has come on leaps and bounds, and if it weren’t for the current situation in Syria things would be going even better. Loads of Syrian players have gone abroad, most of them young, and this is sure benefit the game in our country.
“Despite it all, we’ve proved that Syrian football’s in good shape, and Syria’s victory at the WAFF Championship shows it,” he concluded. “I just hope the crisis in Syria comes to an end so Syrian football can bounce back better than ever.”
Coaches on a roll
It is not just the players who are shining a spotlight on Syria. The country’s coaches are also enjoying a real run of form for clubs in the region, with Mohamed Kwid, Fajer Ebrahim and Hosam Al Sayed impressing in Iraq, Maher Bahari and Imman Khankan in Jordan and Haitham Jattal in Lebanon.
Of them all, perhaps Fajer Ebrahim can lay claim to the greatest success. He took Duhok to second spot in the Iraqi league and guided them to a berth in the last 16 of the AFC Cup 2013 following Tuesday’s Group C win over Yemeni outfit Al Sha’ab Ibb, a result which keeps them ahead of section rivals Al Faisaly of Jordan, two-time competition winners, and Oman’s Dhofar. Given this kind of form Ebrahim will be hoping to emulate fellow Syrian coach Nizar Mahrous, who guided Iraqi side Arbil to the final of the AFC Cup last year.
A former Syria national boss, Ebrahim spoke to FIFA.com about the achievements of his country's roving brotherhood of supremos: “It shows the strong grounding and ability these Syrian coaches have, as they are managing to shine abroad despite the great difficulties they are facing. It shows that all Syrians, whether players or coaches, have a great deal of get-up-and-go and with a bit of support and assistance will do well.
“Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say,” he continued, even managing to remain upbeat on the subject of his country’s current troubles. “The situation at home has encouraged a lot of local talent to move abroad. Once there they’ve managed to prove their worth, despite the current crisis. We just pray it will end as soon as possible, so Syrian football can regain its rightful place.”
And while everyone hopes and waits for Ebrahim’s prayers for his country to be answered, Syrian players and coaches in west and east Asia look all set to go on shining.