- Syria have defied ongoing hardship during their Russia 2018 campaign
- Captain Ahmad Al Salih has been a pivotal figure
- “We play for the joy of our people" says Al Salih
Syria’s resilience and sheer determination to achieve against the odds have been on display throughout the ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying campaign. But rarely has that spirit been more apparent than in the recent 2-2 draw against China PR.
Syria played hosts in neutral Malaysia but the visiting Chinese led 2-1 as the game entered stoppage time. The referee looked at his watch and the travelling Chinese supporters began celebrating. Team Dragon looked destined for a second victory under Marcello Lippi but they weren’t counting on Syria captain Ahmad Al Salih, who unleashed a thunderbolt free-kick to seal an unlikely point.
The result further dented China's hopes, but maintained the Syria’s genuine hopes of at least a play-off place berth. Despite much-publicised turmoil at home, Syria have not only won through to the final round, but now sit three points off third-placed Uzbekistan and four behind second-placed Korea Republic, with two rounds remaining.
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"The result [against China] was a testament to our bravery and determination," Al Salih, who recently moved to Chinese Super League side Henan Jianye, told FIFA.com. "We are a team that won't give up without a fight. We always play with our hearts and strive to win. And I was so glad for scoring such an important goal."
"I have scored quite a few times from free-kicks so this goal was not my first time," said the 27-year-old defender who first showcased his set-piece capability on the global stage with a famous 30-yard free-kick which sealed Syria's 2-0 victory against Honduras in the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup. "But this one was special. I will never forget it because it keeps our hopes of an automatic qualifying spot still alive."
Playing for the people
In a sense, Syria have emerged the surprise packets of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018. Despite the difficulties facing them, the Syrians defied all odds to progress into the third round, where they are making waves. With two wins and three draws, Syria have proved a side no one dares write off.
"You can say that it is a surprise [Syria reaching the last 12],” Al Salih continued. "In fact, it was not easy. We have proven that we are the best Syria national team in history.
"We have a rich crop of youth talents. The young players are confident and ambitious. We have a responsibility of doing our best and bringing a smile back to the faces of our people."
While Syria's amazing run has raised eyebrows, all the more impressive is that they have overcome unbelievable hardship and adversary in the process. "We have been met with a series of difficulties. We can't play at home and we have no way to arrange friendly matches. Most players are playing in foreign leagues so the team can't be gathered until two or three days before each match."
Resilience is something which has marked out Syria's displays during their qualifying campaign. They needed a stoppage-time penalty from Omar Kharbin to edge Uzbekistan, before Al Salih shone with his last-ditch strike against China.
"There is immense pride to watch the national flag and listen to the national anthem. We represent our country and we want to convey our message – we can achieve our footballing goals despite the sufferings. We play for the joy of our people.
"There are two big matches left and we will work hard to win both. Our goals are clear: we will focus everything on the two games and earning maximum points. We are capable of winning and realising our dreams of a first-ever World Cup qualification.”