As its cities lay in ruins and millions of its citizens continue to suffer the horrors of a vicious civil war, Syria has its eyes on a bright and unexpected goal this week: a long-sought World Cup spot.
An underdog Syrian squad, ranked 75th in the world, has claimed credible draws with regional heavyweights like South Korea and Iran and beaten the likes of China, Qatar, and Uzbekistan to clinch a playoff place and a chance to qualify for the first time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. They just have a few games standing in their way.
“The important thing is that the team is determined to try and qualify for the World Cup,” Syria striker Omar Khribin told The Associated Press. ”We have played against some very strong teams so far … We competed well against them and proved that we are also a strong team.”
The Syrians, known as the “Qasioun Eagles” after a mountain overlooking Damascus, defied the odds by finishing third in their qualifying group despite playing their home games in Malaysia. They now face an Australian squad Thursday for the first of a two-leg playoff. The winner will advance to face the fourth-place finisher in the CONCACAF qualifiers, which would be Panama, Honduras, or even the United States.
But the Syrians have beaten all the odds just to get this far. Syria is suffering a protracted conflict that has claimed more than 470,000 lives and displaced millions, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which identified September 2017 as the bloodiest month of the now-six year civil war.
The Syrian military, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, now holds most urban centers following a brutal four-year battle for Aleppo, the country’s second city, and Syrian troops are preparing for a “final assault” on the Islamic State (ISIS)-held town of Deir Ezzor. ISIS has lost significant ground since 2015, including the militant stronghold of Mosul in neighboring Iraq, which fell to Iraqi coalition forces in July after a nine-month siege.
Assad, who has been accused of war crimes and using chemical weapons, is reportedly a fan of the Qasioun Eagles, leading some online commenters to warn that the Syrian state could exploit the team’s success as a propaganda tool, according to the Washington Post.
“Anyone who knows Syria well knows that in Syria there are no independent institutions, and that includes sporting institutions,” Syrian journalist Hala Droubi told the Los Angeles Times.
But players reject the notion of any political affiliation.
“We have nothing to do with politics,” said striker Firas Khatib told the Times. “We represent every Syrian citizen.”
The chance of attaining their World Cup dream has been an emotional roller-coaster for some Syrians. When a dramatic overtime goal against Iran on Sept. 5 clinched a 2-2 tie and the group’s third place slot, one enthusiastic Syrian commentator broke down in tears.
“Oh Allah, in the 93rd minute? What is happening?” he shouted. “I swear you deserve it, our national team … No one can stop them.”
The match kicks off in Malaysia at 8:30 p.m. local time (8:30 a.m. ET) Thursday.