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Syria Is Just Four Games Away From Qualifying for the World Cup

After Tuesday’s draw with Iran, Syria heads to a playoff against Australia

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When qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup started in 2015, Syria was ranked 126th in the world. It’d been banned from qualification prior to the 2014 tournament for fielding an ineligible player, and wasn’t allowed to play home games in its national stadium during this cycle. Now, the team is four games away from reaching its first World Cup final.

On Tuesday, Syria advanced to the Asian Football Confederation’s third-place World Cup qualification playoff after drawing Iran, 2-2.

Going into the day, in order to move on, Syria needed at least a draw with Iran, the undefeated group leader, and it needed fourth-place Uzbekistan to draw or lose to South Korea. Anything less meant elimination.

For a few minutes, it looked like the Syrians might avoid the playoff altogether. They scored first, finding the net in the 13th minute when Tamer Haj Mohamad redirected a saved Omar Al Somah free kick. Meanwhile, South Korea and Uzbekistan were locked in a scoreless draw, and if those results held, Syria would have advanced directly to the World Cup finals. Iran then scored its first goal seconds before halftime, and added another in the 64th minute to go up 2-1 before Syria evened the score with a goal from Al Somah. The Uzbekistan–South Korea game ended goalless.

Syria will now play Australia in the AFC’s third-place playoff in October. The winner will take on North America’s fourth-place finisher. Depending on the results of the final games of CONCACAF’s hexagonal qualifier, that could mean two games against the United States with a World Cup berth on the line.

That the Syrian team made it this far is, of course, remarkable. Due to safety concerns stemming from the country’s civil war, FIFA wouldn’t allow Syria to play its home games in Damascus, so the team had to find a new host. In the second round of AFC qualification, Syria played home games in Oman, and was almost disqualified after being unable to find a Middle Eastern host for the third round before Malaysia—nearly 5,000 miles away—offered its grounds. Syria finished the third round of qualification with a 3-4-3 record and 13 points, besting Uzbekistan on goal difference. Whereas Iran and South Korea both have players with experience playing for European clubs, the majority of players on Syria’s squad play in the domestic league, and most who don’t instead play in the UAE or Iraq. The best Syrian-born player, Borussia Dortmund’s Mahmoud Dahoud, has opted to represent Germany at the youth level.

In the coming weeks, Syrians will likely find themselves in a difficult situation. Many of them spent years fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime at home and abroad, but dreamed their entire lives of seeing their countrymen represent them at the world’s biggest sporting event. Soccer is Syria’s favorite sport. Poke your head into any restaurant in Damascus, and it’s likely you’ll see a game on a television above the tables. For most, Tuesday’s result will be met with a mix of euphoria and confusion.

Since the start of the country’s civil war in early 2011, the team has been inextricably linked to the Assad regime. The Baathist government uses stadiums as military bases in the bloody war that’s left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. The government has reportedly abducted and killed prominent soccer players, and threatened family members of those who dared speak out against its brutality. Firas al-Khatib, the team’s captain, boycotted the side for five years before returning this summer.

"Now, in Syria, [there are] many killers, not just one or two … [a]nd I hate all of them," al-Khatib told ESPN. "Whatever happen[s], 12 million Syrians will love me. [The o]ther 12 million will want to kill me."

When the referees called the game against Iran, and the players and coaches emerged from the technical area waving a flag—the Baathist flag—on their backs, the television announcers on beIN Sports yelled out in excitement.

“One thousand congratulations to the Syrian team! One thousand congratulations to the Syrian people!”