Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Tehran/Beirut — War-torn Syria is on the verge of qualifying for the soccer world cup for the first time. The team standing in its way? Battlefield ally Iran, one of two nations whose support has enabled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to gain an upper hand in the country’s six-year conflict.

Syria would be guaranteed at least a play-off place for the 2018 finals if they beat Iran in Tehran on Tuesday, and might qualify automatically as runners-up in their group depending on the result between South Korea and Uzbekistan. Syrian television has been broadcasting a song in praise of the national team each hour over images of goals it scored in earlier matches.

Qualification would be a striking achievement for a squad that cannot play at home due to the war and whose members are vetted by the government. Associated Press reported that while the national team was made up of government-approved supporters, at least one player — striker Firas al-Khatib — was an opposition activist during a period of exile.

And in another twist, Assad’s other key supporter in a conflict that’s left about 400,000 people dead is Russia — host of next year’s competition.

"This dream will certainly come true and we will reach the World Cup," said one man interviewed by Syrian television in Latakia, a western Assad stronghold. Twitter users have shared pictures of the squad using an Arabic hashtag which translates as #YesWeCan.

"We’ll play for victory and nothing else," Syrian manager Ayman al-Hakim was cited as saying by the state news agency Sana. "I have great confidence in the players to achieve this and we promise to make millions of Syrians happy."

‘Dirty, cowardly’

Syria has played its "home" qualification games in Malaysia, a blow for Assad who is attempting to portray life in territory controlled by his government as returning toward normalcy. In August, Damascus hosted its first international trade fair in five years.

After Syria’s 3-1 defeat of Qatar last week set up the crunch match in Tehran’s Azadi stadium, there was speculation on social media over whether its geopolitical ties would affect the outcome. That prompted a categorical response from Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s coach.

"The accusation of colluding with Syria is dirty and cowardly," Queiroz said at a media conference on Monday, according to the semi-official KhabarOnline news site. He previously managed Spain’s Real Madrid and coached SA’s national men’s team.

Newspapers in Iran have urged their team on. "Attacking Syria with full force!" the football-focused daily Shoot headlined on its front page on Tuesday.

‘Less than zero’

But some commentators have noted the broader significance of the fixture. "Iran and Syria will play against each other while they are also involved in a war," Mohammadreza Nasiri, sports editor for Hamshahri, Iran’s most popular newspaper, said in a phone interview.

The match had triggered memories of Iran’s 7-0 thrashing of Palestine in Tehran in 2011, he said. That rout was criticised by the conservative newspaper Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for being too harsh.

"Queiroz always reacts angrily against these sorts of rumours," Nasiri said. "For him there’s a further motivation — he wants to protect Iran’s record and realise a goal of playing nine consecutive games without ceding a single goal and he’s chosen his team accordingly; it’s a very defensive line-up."

"There is a less than zero chance that Iran will allow Syria to just go through," he said. "But Syria has a good team, it shouldn’t surprise us if they win."


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