When Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov whistles for the start of play between Syria and Japan on Thursday 8 October, the teams’ fourth matches in Group E of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Syrian supporters will no doubt recall the last contest between the two countries' senior sides, at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
In the encounter at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium in the Qatari capital Doha, the Japanese needed a penalty eight minutes from time to secure a win which kick-started their journey towards a fourth Asian title success. Yet the Syrians’ strong performance had certainly put their heavyweight opponents on the ropes, as midfielder Abdelrazaq Al Hussain, part of that side, recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
"I really feel sad when I remember that game, because we were very close to victory," Al Hussain said. "The score was 1-1 and the Japanese goalkeeper had been sent off. Even so, we still ended up losing after the referee gave a penalty against us late in the game, from which Japan went 2-1 ahead."
It may have been over four years ago, but the 29-year old midfield man believes Syria’s performance in that 2011 match could spur him and his team-mates on to achieving a positive result in Thursday's game, and thus stay atop Group E.
"Although we lost that game, our performance then will be an incentive for us in the upcoming game,” he said. “Japan were on top form and ended up winning the Asian title. We always talk about that game with the younger players, telling them that we competed with them as equals and that, with this new generation, we can achieve good results too."
Staying tight at the back
Results have indeed been good in Russia 2018 qualifying so far, the team winning their first three group games and scoring 13 goals, to none conceded, in the process. Not that they can rest on their laurels ahead of a meeting with the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Co.
"Japan are very strong, with many players at European clubs," Al Hussain said. "They are capable of scoring in any game, though our coach has drawn up a game plan to try to stop them. We will certainly play in a balanced way and stick to a strategy, we won’t go out there and play randomly. I hope we can manage to keep a clean sheet for the fourth game in a row because, if we do, we’ll definitely get a positive result."
Al Hussain, who recently moved to the Lebanese club Al Ahed, also noted how Singapore held Japan to a draw in the Samurai Blue’s first match of Russia 2018 qualifying. "Everyone was surprised that Singapore held Japan to a draw,” he said. “Singapore were on top of their game and managed to stop Japan scoring by playing realistically and responsibly. That will be added motivation for us, boosting our belief that we’re capable of performing well and winning."
Hope amidst the suffering
It was two months after the Japan game in the 2011 Asian Cup that the ongoing tragic events in Syria began but, since then, the national team have still been able to train very well, in spite of the security situation. "The current team has a good blend of experienced and young players," he said, before underlining that the Eagles of Qasioun are not short on motivating factors. "Had conditions been better, our results would have been even better, but we can learn from the Iraqi team, which won the 2007 Asian Cup while Iraq was also experiencing conflict."
However, with the Syria-Japan game taking place in Muscat, Oman, Syria lose the backing of an important "12th man": their traditionally passionate fans. "Playing away from home is undoubtedly a disadvantage," Al Hussain said. "It hurts that we are unable to play in our country, as we have a huge and supportive fan base that always motivates the team. If the game was to be played in Syria, in front of 40,000 Syrian supporters, it would certainly be better for us."
Al Hussain remains optimistic, though, and stated that any success the Syrian team achieve can help ease some of the burden of events in his country, putting smiles on the faces of Syrian football fans. "I always say that we can bring some joy to the Syrian people, who have suffered a great deal in the past few years,” Al Hussain said, who has global tournament experience having taken part in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005.
“I just hope we can provide something, however small, to unite the Syrians behind us. This hope also motivates us to perform well, as we try to make our fellow Syrians happy," concluded Al Hussain and, without a doubt, a Syria win versus Japan on Thursday would be proof of the team’s ability to hold strong and achieve positive results, whatever the circumstances.