Syria can learn from Iraq to upset Socceroos in World Cup playoff
Australia were full of confidence when they arrived at their first Asian Cup in 2007, with talk of winning the tournament undefeated. A loss in the second game against Iraq quickly put paid to that ambition, while providing an instant dose of humility.
The Lions of Mesopotamia had talent, yet were not one of the favourites. With the homeland torn apart by invasion and war, preparations had been poor. Yet despite, or some would say because of the difficulties, a resilient Iraq went on to lift the trophy.
A decade on, and if there was still any reason for the Socceroos to expect a smooth ride through Asia, it was dispelled by failing to qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup. And if there was any reason for the team to take Syria lightly, it should be dispelled by the example set by Iraq. After all, the Qasioun Eagles are bidding to become the first Asian nation to make the World Cup while being forced to play home games on neutral soil.
In the second round, Oman hosted Syria's matches, but, of late, home has been Malaysia, with Malacca hosting Thursday's World Cup playoff, first leg. Travelling almost 8000 kilometres has just been one of the many challenges that the Syrians have faced on the road to Russia 2018.
The ongoing war that first engulfed the nation earlier this decade has had a major effect on the football scene, though the league continues in certain pockets of the country that are controlled by government forces. Nothing gives the perception that all is normal more than regular games contested by some famous old names of West Asian football.
Just as the chaos is inevitable, so are the divisions that run through the country affecting the national team. The likes of Firas Al Khatib and Omar Al Soma did not play any part in the earlier games in qualification. But their return with just a few games to go -- for reasons they have refused to talk publicly about -- certainly nudged the team closer towards a first-ever World Cup finals' appearance.
Despite all their off-the-pitch challenges, Syria are a hard-working team who fight for everything. They also have in-form striker Omar Khribin, who scored a hat trick last week for Al Hilal in the semifinals of the AFC Champions League. Comparisons with Iraq in 2007 can be taken too far, but it certainly seems that the resilience that was part of that team is being replicated by Syria 2017.
What it means for the Socceroos is opponents who are accustomed to playing away. The second leg in Sydney on Oct. 10 will hold no fears at all.
Syria went to Seoul and lost narrowly 1-0. Then they travelled to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran in September, the toughest destination in Asia, and drew 2-2. Those two goals scored were the only ones that Iran conceded in 10 games in the third round of qualification.
With all the issues back home and the travel involved just to play home games, the Syrian national team have become noticeably tougher in recent years. To be one of the top six finishers in Asian qualification is some achievement.
It is apparent is that Syria feel they have nothing to lose because nobody expected them to get this far. This meant that there were no complaints by fans after the somewhat-cynical performances against South Korea and Iran. The 0-0 draws were celebrated wildly, though as spectacles for the neutral, with time-wasting almost from the first whistle, they were forgettable.
It remains to be seen if Syria will carry the same attitude into the two games with Australia. Now the prize of the World Cup is within touching distance, there may be more nerves and pressure on them.
Not only that, there will be unprecedented attention coming the team's way. Even so, coach Ayman Al Hakeem may well be brave enough to frustrate the Socceroos in a way that they have never been frustrated before.
Syria have come so far on team spirit, and have been almost unnoticed. The way the team have often played has not been reported on so much. Now, the eyes of Asia, and much of the world will be on the team.
Although Iraq went all the way in 2007, it remains to be seen if Syria can do something similar.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.