Syrian history-maker counsels U-17 hopefuls

“It filled me with pride, joy, and self-confidence,” was how Syrian striker Haani Al Taiar summed up his performance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 in Korea Republic, a final tournament at which his country made history when appearing for the very first time.

And this year, after a three-edition absence, Syria are preparing for their second appearance at this global festival of youth football, at the upcoming U-17 World Cup in Chile. looked back with Taiar on his experiences at Korea 2007, where he scored a vital goal and proved a central figure in Syria’s run to the Round of 16.

Pride and fond memories When we first mentioned the competition in South Korea, Taiar needed a moment to get his memories in order, the emotion in his voice clearly noticeable on recalling Syria’s adventure in 2007. “That was definitely the best time of my life. After we qualified, everything changed. All eyes were on us and we had to go through some really testing training sessions,” he said.

“But we knew that with every single session and friendly match we were building up our confidence and breaking down our fear of the unknown, because this was the first time ever that we’d made it through to the World Cup. We didn’t have any experience to look back on. We got some good friendly results and after we found out who we were drawn against – Spain, Argentina, and Honduras – we became even more determined to hit peak fitness and performance levels in time for the tournament.”

Though given little chance of making it through to the knockout stages, Taiar and Co started as they meant to go on in their opening matches versus Argentina, on 19 August, and Spain three days later. “We knew that the other teams in the group were a cut above us, but we somehow summoned the willpower to face up to them as equals. In the first match, we managed to secure a 0-0 draw with Argentina, then in our second we lost against Spain, but only to a goal at the death.

“We had one point and that gave us a lot of confidence, especially because a place in the next round was still up for grabs,” he went on. “All our hopes rested on a win against Honduras and that match is etched into my memory. I still remember our first goal as if it were happening right in front of me now. There was a long kick from the goalkeeper and I headed the ball out to the right side of the pitch. The ball was sent into the penalty area and I got into position, before Mohammad Abadi passed it to me and I put it away. We went on to win 2-0 and qualified for the second round”.

nobody would have backed us to qualify,” Taiar continued. “We did the impossible and wrote history that day. We then set our sights on getting past the Round of 16 but England proved too strong. They knocked us out of the cup, but we left with our heads held high. We were really proud of what we did at a global tournament.”

Staying strong Taiar’s upward momentum did not stop there, the forward and his colleagues building on the impression they had made at Korea 2007 to kick-start their footballing careers. “We didn’t lose our way in the game, we stuck together as a group and moved up to the next age level. We broke into the national U-20 squad and took part in qualification for the U-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009, while some of us also played for the national team at the 2008 West Asian Football Federation Championship and finished in third place.

“Even after we failed to reach the knockout stages at the AFC U-19 Championship, a lot of us were promoted to the Olympic-age squad,” he continued. “We also took part in the Qatar International Friendship Tournament in 2009. Lots of big-name international stars have taken part in previous editions of that, such as Brazil’s Kaka, and I’m proud to say I made an impact there and finished top scorer.”

At club level, Taiar earned a place at Homs-based outfit Al Karama, a club whose biggest claim to fame was finishing runners-up in the 2006 AFC Champions League. “Al Karama are my first love, ever since I was a kid I’d dreamed of playing for them,” Taiar explained. “After our achievements at the 2007 U-17 World Cup, I got to play for them, even though I wasn’t even 18 yet.

“I took part in the league championship and cup competition several times and even scored a hat-trick in a Syrian Super Cup match,” he went on. “When the situation changed in Syria and footballing activity stopped, I continued my career abroad. I played in the Jordanian league with Al Sareeh and Al Faisaly and in Bahrain with Al Najma. This season, I’m going to start with Al Jazeera in Jordan, a team which has a lot of history.”

A message to pass on Taiar has certainly notched up a lot of experience throughout his footballing career and, with a view to securing valuable advice for the current Syria U-17 crop preparing for Chile 2015, we asked him about the main factors behind his country’s feats at Korea 2007. “Like everyone else when you watch a World Cup from afar, we thought that it was only about what happened on the pitch, but we soon found out that there was a lot more to it than that.

“We learned how to follow instructions off the pitch, in terms dealing with fans and the media, while in our matches, we showed everyone that when you’ve prepared well, you can reduce the performance gap between teams – whatever the pedigree of the teams you take on,” he continued.

“I would like to send a message to the players now in the U-17 squad: I hope they can learn from what we did. They’ve still got a chance to make some final preparations and improve even more. They need to follow their coach’s instructions so they arrive in Chile completely prepared and think about what their achievements could mean to millions of Syrians, who need this kind of happiness in their lives more than ever.”

Moreover, given his integral role up front for Syria on South Korean soil eight years ago, when he played an impressive 315 minutes of their campaign, we asked him to offer the current U-17 front-men some specific advice. “A striker needs to know the importance of teamwork,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, as our conversation concluded.

“His aim has to be victory for his team, not his individual success. He has to try and seize every opportunity and show courage in the face of the opposition. The only way to get where you want to go is through competing and showing fighting spirit.”