Red Eagles helping storm clouds dissipate in Syria
© AFP

One of football's most important functions is its capacity to bring people together regardless of their differences – even during periods of great turmoil. That has certainly been true in Syria of late, with the local population rallying around the Red Eagles as they won their maiden West Asian Football Federation Championship title in December.

The troubles that have gripped the country for the last two years have inevitably had an impact on sporting life, including the suspension of the national championship and Syria's early exit from 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying. Given that difficult context, the national side's hard-fought triumph in the WAFF Championship represents a real glimmer of hope for Syrian football.

The Red Eagles have also had their efforts rewarded in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, climbing eight places thanks to their results in Kuwait last month. They now lie 136th overall and 20th among teams from Asia.

Syria's January 2013 ranking is, in fact, their highest position in five months and further proof they are moving in the right direction after dropping to their lowest ever standing. That came in October last year, when the side were ranked 150th.  

Standards rising
Unsurprisingly, few expected Syria to even qualify from Group C when the seventh edition of the WAFF Championship got under way last month. After all, their opponents in the section were Iraq and Jordan, both of whom are currently competing in the fourth round of Asian Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014. Syria hardly enjoyed the best of preparations either, contesting just two friendlies against Palestine in November and drawing the first 1-1 before losing the second 2-1.

Despite those portents, Hosam Al-Sayed's men kicked off with a 1-1 stalemate against Iraq, before earning a surprise 2-1 success against Jordan. That was enough to give the Red Eagles top spot in their group, and they subsequently edged past fellow semi-finalists Bahrain on penalties at the end of a 1-1 draw.

Spurred on by their supporters, Syria then created history by defeating Iraq in the final courtesy of Ahmad Al-Salih's winning effort on 73 minutes. It was a historic goal, although the honour of being Syria's top scorer in the competition actually went to Ahmad Al-Douny, who buried four of his team's five strikes.

"It's a great event for Syrian football when you take into account the current circumstances," coach Al-Sayed explained to FIFA.com. "Thanks to that first title, we brought joy to every Syrian and put ourselves back on the football map in West Asia."

The man in charge is also delighted that his team have made progress in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. "We hadn't moved upwards for quite a while," he said. "It's good news. I hope we'll be able to make good use of our competitive and friendly matches in 2013 to go even further."

Focus on the future
Syria will get their first chance to prove their win in Kuwait was no accident when they begin the qualifying process for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup next week. The Red Eagles must lock horns with Jordan, Oman and Singapore as they attempt to book their finals place, and they face their first test on Wednesday when they travel to Muscat.

"We showed by winning the West Asian Championship that we're a team to be reckoned with," said Al-Sayed, speaking to FIFA.com from Cairo, where his charges are undergoing preparations. "We'll start the qualifiers for the Asian Cup more determined than ever so that we can build on our good results.

"We've been drawn in a tough group with Jordan and Oman, who are still in contention in the qualifiers for the World Cup," added the former international. "Singapore are a team we need to take seriously as well. Everyone has a chance and fortune will probably smile on whoever makes the fewest mistakes.

"We have big ambitions and our morale is sky high. We're hungry to do big things for our country and show the talents of Syrian players in a good light."