Socceroos must overcome Syria foreign fortress in World Cup playoff
Earlier this year, the Malaysian city of Malacca, which will host next month's 2018 AFC World Cup playoff, officially became "Melaka" in a bid to end years of confusion between the English and Bahasa spellings.
There has been some uncertainty in Australia too, with the Socceroos wondering about the location of the away leg of their showdown with Syria on Oct. 5. In the end, the Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka was chosen by Asia's ruling body after Abu Dhabi and Doha had been mentioned as possible venues. The ongoing war rules out home games in Damascus.
Australian fans won't care about how Melaka is now written, as long as it is written into the country's history books as a place where Ange Postecoglou's side took an important step towards the World Cup, and not where their Russia 2018 dreams were dashed. For 500 years, visitors have been coming to Melaka, seeking their fortunes.
So it is fitting that this old historic settlement should be a port of call on the way to qualification for a fourth consecutive World Cup.
Melaka has been on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world for centuries, and while it lost trade and status to nearby Singapore, its riverside and side streets are bursting with history. Over the past 500 years or so, it has been settled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and, most recently, the British, to add layers to the city's traditional Chinese influence.
Visitors come to see the fort and visit the market and restaurant area of Jonker Street. It can feel more crowded in Melaka's tourist heartland on a Saturday night than at the Hang Jebat Stadium, on the outskirts of the city. In terms of football, there are too many contradictory influences to make this a hotbed.
In their pre-AFC days as the kings of Oceania, Australia endured playoff visits to places such as Buenos Aires, Tehran and Montevideo. These are football cities, with huge crowds that you are not going to find at a neutral venue. The memories from Melaka are not going to be about the hostile home fans or the wall of noise.
You can't blame the Syrians for that. When home is 7,500 kilometres away, then staying away is the easiest option for the fans. Not only that, a running track at the stadium rarely helps the creation of an intense atmosphere.
Yet, despite the distances involved for the hosts, the arena has become something of a fortress for Syria, and, indeed, the happiest of adopted hunting grounds.
This is in contrast to the more permanent residents of Melaka United, who play in the Malaysia Super League. Newly promoted Melaka, who were coached earlier this season by Eric Williams -- father of Socceroo Rhys Williams -- are battling to avoid a quick return to the second tier, sitting just a point above the drop zone.
Syria's record here is much better. In fact, it is 100 percent. The first two games in Group A were goalless draws against South Korea and Iran. Those took place in Seremban, an hour's drive north, and closer to Kuala Lumpur. Since moving to Hang Jebat, with its superior playing surface, the West Asians have won all three of their qualifiers against China, Uzbekistan and Qatar, plus a friendly against Malaysia.
The team have a two-pronged attack in a philosophical sense. The first is to make things very difficult for strong opposition.
When South Korea came to Malaysia for their first away game of the group, they left shaking their heads after the most frustrating of goalless draws.
"Before this match, I told the players about the opponents' time-wasting football," then-Korean coach Uli Stielike said. "Even if they waste 15 minutes, only six minutes of stoppage time is given to us and this is why teams like Syria are using time-killing actions."
The frustration was understandable. Some of the time-wasting was blatant, with the goalkeeper the biggest culprit. Ibrahim Alma generated headlines in June for his clearance style. But, apart from making some decent saves, the Syria No. 1 spent an unusually high proportion of the game on the floor. He has perfected the style of holding his wrist and writhing in agony.
Yet, as the campaign progressed, Syria started to play a more attacking game, boosted by the return of star forwards Firas Al Khatib and Omar Al Soma. The latter scored the all-important goal in Tehran on Sept. 5 to give the team an emotional 2-2 draw against Iran. Syria have momentum and confidence.
The Syrians are just the latest in a long line of visitors to Melaka. It is a city that welcomes those who adapt, while contributing something a little different.
That is why Melaka is feeling increasingly like home for Syria. The Socceroos should be cautioned not to expect an easy evening in Bandaraya Bersejarah, its official Malay nickname, meaning Historical City.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.