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In Malaysia, ‘homeless’ Syria’s 2018 FIFA World Cup dream gets new lease of life

Syria, who are forced to play their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying home games in Malaysia as a result of the civil war, received a huge boost in their qualification campaign.

football Updated: Mar 24, 2017 17:03 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Syria,Syria Football,2018 FIFA World Cup
Syria scored a late goal to beat Uzbekistan in their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying third round, group stage match .(Twitter)

There were just 350 fans in attendance during Syria’s ‘home’ leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying third round, group stage match against Uzbekistan at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malacca, Malaysia on Thursday.

With the formidable Uzbeks harbouring hopes of securing a direct place in the main tournament, Syria needed a win to keep their own hopes alive.

After 90 minutes of goalless action, the match moved into stoppage time, and Syria’s World Cup dream seemed set to receive a crushing blow. And then, with seconds left on the clock Syria’s Firas al-Khatib was brought down inside Uzbekistan’s penalty box.

It is worth noting that the 33-year-old Al-Khatib, considered one of the country’s greatest footballers, had remained banished from international football for nearly six years.

In July 2012, he had offered his support to the Syrian opposition, and vowed never to play for Syria again as long as the Assad regime continued to target civilians through airstrikes.

With Syria needing a goal to win, forward Omar Kharbin stepped up to take the all-important penalty. His spot-kick was audacious, but effective. Kharbin gambled with a ‘Panenka’ chip, but it turned out to be enough as the Uzbek custodian dived in the wrong direction. Cue, three points to Syria!

The win saw Syria, placed 95th in the FIFA world rankings, take their points tally to eight points from six games, just one point behind the third-placed Uzbekistan. China’s 1-0 upset win over South Korea meant that the latter stayed in their second place with 10 points.

As things stand, the Syrians find themselves in a very good position of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

Finishing in the top two spots will guarantee qualification to the main tournament, while a third-place finish will take them into the playoffs.

Syria and Uzbekistan players vie for the ball. (Twitter)

Their remaining fixtures include ‘home’ clashes against China and Qatar, but their litmus test will come in the away games in South Korea and Iran.

With a bloody civil war having ravaged the country for the last six years, Syria’s footballing fairytale will come as a welcome distraction for the people of the country.

Having been forced to play their World Cup qualifying home games in Oman and Malaysia as a result of the civil war, Syria’s current run will also serve as a major boost to their domestic football industry.

It was only a few weeks back that league football made its return to Aleppo and Latakia, after rebels lost control of both cities.

With four games left to play in this round, Syria still have some to way to go if they are to script one of football’s most incredible fairytales.

However, having progressed from a difficult group in the second round and now punching well above their weight in the third round, Syria, irrespective of whether they eventually make it to the 2018 World Cup or not, have undoubtedly been the story of the ongoing qualifying stages.

First Published: Mar 24, 2017 16:25 IST