• Syria’s superb performances united its people
  • Al Soma’s return bolstered the team’s front line
  • The Qasyoun Eagles played 20 qualifying games in 28 months 

Syria’s dream of a place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ came to a sad end with defeat to Australia in the second leg of the AFC play-off this week. The Socceroos needed extra time to prevail over the Qasyoun Eagles and keep their hopes alive of a place at Russia 2018.

The Syrian team’s exploits have been a source of joy for many of their weary compatriots, who have had to endure a devastating war and great loss of life since 2011. The enormous support shown by the Syrian fans to their national team throughout the qualifiers was striking proof that football can do the impossible and break down the kind of barriers that divide a nation.

Despite the disappointment of the extra-time defeat to Australia, not to mention the post denying Omar Al Soma in the dying minutes, Syria can look to the future with optimism after their outstanding performance throughout the campaign. Hopes are high that the team can perform even better ahead of Qatar 2022 and perhaps even make it to the first FIFA World Cup to be played in the Middle East.

The dream journey
Syria started their campaign in the second round, where there were drawn in Group E with Asian giants Japan as well as Singapore, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. The Qasyoun Eagles laid down a marker with home-and-away wins over the latter three, despite two defeats to Japan (3-0 in Muscat and 5-0 in Tokyo).

And while Syria advanced to the third qualifying, coming second behind Japan, their football association opted for a change of coach, replacing Fajr Ibrahim with Ayman Hakeem.

In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com last October, Hakeem said “Despite the difficult circumstances at home, with determination and confidence we can make it through. The players want to show they have what it takes to get good results and we’re convinced, both as Syrians and footballers, that we can continue to achieve success.”

Hakeem and his charges proved they were up to the task by almost snatching a direct spot to Russia 2018 during the final matchday. They would eventually finish third in Group A, earning them a play-off with Australia. And while the Socceroos duly triumphed, the Qasyoun Eagles proved beyond doubt that they are a competitive side.

What’s next
Despite that disappointment, the national team brought joy to the hearts of millions of Syrians, with the support they received from a united following being exactly one of the goals that Hakeem and his team wanted to achieve.

After the second leg in Australia, which marked the end of the World Cup dream, Hakeem commented: “Our team achieved something huge. We did all we could to qualify for the intercontinental play-offs and kept the dream alive until the last minute, hoping to bring happiness to the Syrian people. We united them behind us but, unfortunately, our journey did not end with the success we’d hoped for.”

Despite the mixed emotions, Syrian fans should be proud that their team have proved themselves capable of taking on the bigger sides and getting results. They must now hope that their team can go all the way to Qatar 2022 after nine unsuccessful attempts to reach the World Cup.

Player to watch
After a long absence from the national team due to the circumstances in his home country, Omar Al Soma returned this year to bolster the national team’s front line. The 28-year-old, who plies his trade with Jeddah-based Al-Ahly, netted a late equaliser against Australia in the first leg, before putting his side ahead in the return fixture. In fact, Al Soma scored in three consecutive qualifiers, proving himself to be one of Asia’s best strikers.

The stat
20 - The number of games Syria played in the Russia 2018 qualifiers. Their campaign started on 11 June 2015 and saw them post nine wins, five draws and six defeats.