The Heartbreaking Triumph of Syrian Football | AFC Asian Cup Preview vs India

Courtesy: (Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE)

“In his 69th appearance for the country. The Captain. Their most capped player in the squad. Their highest goalscorer… Firas Al-Khatiiiib!! Manages to beat the big man Gurpreet Singh Sandhu… and Syria are back in it!”

With the full time whistle 17 minutes after that goal, it was a disheartening end to both Syria’s and India’s Hero Intercontinental Cup Campaign in 2019. The ended in a 1-1 draw, India got their solitary point, after losing against Tajikistan and North Korea, while if had Syria won, they would have qualified for the final against North Korea who eventually won the tournament. 

Just two years prior, Firas Al Khatib was in a huge conundrum, whether to start playing again for his country or continue his exile in Kuwait. In 2011, when peaceful protests against the demonic Syrian President Assad eventually spiralled into a full blown Civil War, Firas’ home city of Homs became the de facto capital of the Syrian Revolution. Due to violent crackdown by the Assad Government, Firas had to witness the gruesome deaths of the people close to him, people of his town. 

The clubs and the National Football Team were used as a propaganda tool by the Assad regime as they were forced to march for and chant the President’s name before matches. Any opposition to Assad was brutally silenced, which of course included popular footballers who joined the revolution. Firas couldn’t represent the flag of death, he couldn’t betray his compatriots who were martyred in a quest to save their nation, thus he decided to flee.

Courtesy: Associated Press | Hasan Ammar

However, politics and human emotion is complicated and nuanced. The Syrians got divided into two factions, one which supported Assad, the other didn’t. The Syrian conflict isn’t about a right or wrong, it’s about two wrongs (the revolution eventually got the support of the IS along with other extremist groups), and this dilemma of aligning with who can do the least damage transcends across every Syrian, but a common agreement among all being that of hope, that someday there will be peace and normalcy of life restored in that ancient land.

“Now, in Syria, many k!llers, not just one or two, and I hate all of them,” Khatib remorsed in an interview to ESPN. "Whatever happen, 12 million Syrians will love me, other 12 million will want to kill me." Syria had risen as the dark horses during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualification Rounds. With losses only to Japan, Syria won over Cambodia, Singapore and Afghanistan in the second round to qualify for the third, where they sensationally drew against South Korea and Iran and won over China.

"Every day before I sleep, maybe one hour, two hours, just thinking about this decision," said Firas. Their promising run led to increased calls for him to return by many Syrians, and to a certain extent even the Government who understood his inclusion would largely increase their chances for qualification. Ultimately, he took the decision to return, and there were lot other reasons than his love for the team, which he was reluctant to speak about to keep him and his family safe. 

It was their third round match against Uzbekistan on March 23, 2017. The score: 0-0. Firas Al-Khatib comes on the 85th minute, marking his return after 6 long years. Just 6 minutes later, Firas gets brought down in the opposition box, the penalty gets converted and Syria win over Uzbekistan 1-0. Winning or even drawing the next match against South Korea would ensure Syria’s first ever World Cup.

Syria's players celebrate at the end of their FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match against Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017 (Courtesy: Atta Kenare, AFP)

It was only once before back in 1985 that they came so close to the World Cup qualification, where after winning over Kuwait and North Yemen in the first round, they overcame Bahrain but lost 1-3 to mighty Iran at the final step. Until then, they had enjoyed success in the Arab Games and Arab Cup. In 1953, they made it to the Arab Games final, but were trounced 4-0 by Egypt.

In the ’63 and the ’66 editions of the Arab Cup, they reached the finals but sadly couldn’t win any, bowing out to Tunisia and Iraq respectively. The Arab Cup got substituted by the Palestine Cup eventually, and the finished fourth on two occasions in ’72 and ’75. They then took part in Asian Nations Cup where they had a few promising displays, and then came the close call in 1985.

Two years later, they finally won their first ever major tournament, the 1987 Mediterranean Cup, defeating France Amateurs 2-1 in the final, the winner coming through a 85th minute Walid Abu Al-Sel penalty conversion. After a respectable performance in the ’92 Arab Games (fourth), they nearly missed out on their first ever Asian Cup knockout round qualification in 1996, as the 2 best third place finishing teams would be sent through but Syria couldn’t make that cut.

A year later, the reached the Arab Games final, only to lose to Jordan by a single goal. That year, they scored 24 goals across 2 games (12 each) against Maldives in the ’98 WC first preliminary round, but couldn’t progress further the first stage, just like every other WC qualification campaign till then with the exception of the ’86 one. In the regional West Asian Football Championship, the lost out to Iran in the final on two occasions in 2000 and 2004. Anyone counting the no. of final losses till now?

Syria hosted the 1987 Mediterranean Games

During the ’06 WC qualifiers, the passed the first barrier to the second round but lost against Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan by a difference of a single goal, thus couldn’t survive the next cut. Three years later, they won over Kyrgyzstan 4-1 during the group games of the ’07 Nehru Cup held at the Dr. Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi. They won their other games too, against Bangladesh, Cambodia and India 3-2, the India scorers being Sunil Chettri and Krishnan Nair Ajayan, that being his only goal scored from his 12 appearances for the National team.

The Nehru Cup story doesn’t end there, as India had won their remaining games and were the second in the group, thus Syria and India would face each other again in the Cup final, where the goal by the highly versatile VP Pradeep (could play as a defender, midfielder and forward too) would help the Indians champion the Nehru Cup. Coached by Bob Houghton, that Indian starting lineup featured the likes of Baichung Bhutia, Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, Gourmangi Singh, Subrata Pal and Mahesh Gawli, who is currently an assistant to head coach Igor Stimac in the National Team.

“I vividly remember that nobody gave us much of a chance, because Syria were really good. Technically, I think they were far superior and had been dominating the whole tournament. I think that was one game where we collectively played well and produced a stunner. We defended well as a team in what was never an easy game. That was one of the games where lot of things changed for Indian football,” Sunil Chettri to ESPN in 2018. 


India vs Syria in 2007 Nehru Cup Group Stage

Two years later, it happened to be repeat of the ’07 Nehru Cup as they again won all their group games, but lost to India in the final, this time in penalties. After a goalless affair in the regular 90, India took the lead in the 114th minute through Renedy Singh, but Ali Diab equalised in the added time after 120 minutes to take it to penalties, where India won in sudden death.

The 2010 WC qualification had its unlucky end too as they couldn’t progress to the fourth round due to an inferior goal difference to UAE, the other opponents being Iran (the other team to move on) and Kuwait. In 2012, they won another major trophy in the form of the West Asia Cup by defeating Iraq in the final. It was a proper underdog victory, there being a ranking difference of nearly 60 between the two finalists. News channels interrupted their broadcasts to inform the public of the huge feat.

In 2011, Syrian FA got involved in a stir when they were caught fielding an ineligible player during the 2014 WC qualifiers, hence were disqualified out of the qualifiers. Soon enough, the deadly Syrian Civil War begun, with which, the National Team was forced to play their home games in neutral venues outside of Syria. Many popular footballers refused to play for the regime and decided either to move out in search of proper club football or stayed and joined the revolution, most popular of them being the ‘Singing Goalkeeper of the Revolution’ Abdul Baset al-Sarout who succumbed to injuries while fighting against the Govt. and other rebels in 2019.

Another emotional story of a promising teen Mohammad Jaddou whose playmaking prowess helped Syria qualify for the 2015 U17 FIFA World Cup. Practising the game in the Syria had become a matter of life and death for Jaddou, quite literally. He was threatened is he didn’t attend camps, and the route from his home to Damascus was a treacherous one as his bus became the target of shooting multiple times, and Jaddou escaped unhurt all those times luckily. 

Courtesy: Marko Djurica/Reuters

However, he couldn’t live with that fear anymore, and in 2015 he got himself trafficked out of the country through Turkey took a boat from there to Italy, a journey which takes away 2000 lives a year. Such stories make us understand the human aspects of mass migration, that these people flee their countries out of a fear of their life, and a hope that their success outside will help their families back home. 

It is this resilient mentality of the Syrians, these heartbreaking triumphs of their footballers, trying to make it in other middle eastern and European leagues, the innate do-or-die desire to bring a better peaceful future in their motherland is what forced them to give their anything and everything and keep Syrian football at a respectable position through times of utter despair despite not getting any proper infrastructure and training growing up.

But unlike some emotional movie documenting some exceptional journey of a nobody from humble backgrounds to the top of the world, Syria had to taste defeat against South Korea in their final round 3 match which would have given them a direct spot in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and thus had to face the mighty Australians in the AFC Playoff qualifier, the winner proceeding to play the inter-continental playoff which would give a world cup spot. The 110 ranked Qasioun Eagles sensationally held the Socceroos in a 1-1 draw in the first leg.

Just 6 minutes into the second leg, Omar Jehad Al Somah opened the scoring for Syria, but Tim Cahill equalised in the 13th minute. Syria produced a defensive masterclass with occasional threatening counters, but the match moved on to extra time, where Tim Cahill yet again scored the winner for Australia in the 109th minute. In the 2nd half of ET, Al Somah took a beautiful free kick shot which happened to rattle the cross bar and deflect away. Had that gone in, had that match been taken to penalties, Syria could very well have played its first ever World Cup.

Khaled Almbayed of Syria (2L) and Mathew Leckie of Australia (C) fight for the ball during the 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match between Syria and Australia at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malacca on October 5, 2017. (CAFP PHOTO/MOHD RASFAN)

Syria had a poor performance in the Asian Cup in 2019 and got sent out of the 2022 WC qualifiers in the third round, but now circumstances have produced yet another golden opportunity for the mighty Syrians to shine. The World Cup’s expansion to 48 teams now increases their chances. They have an easy route to the third round, from where the top 2 from the three groups have the direct slot, while the next two from each group get divided into 2 groups of 3 in the fourth round, the winner of each group going to North America, while both runner ups going the playoff route, winning which would send them to the inter-federation playoffs.

Meanwhile, Syria find themselves in the highly challenging 2023 Asian Cup group featuring Australia, Uzbekistan and India. After sensationally holding the mighty Uzbeks to a 0-0 draw through an exceptional defensive performance, and largely troubling Australia and losing out through only a single goal. If Australia win over Uzbekistan while Syria overcome the Indian challenge, it will boil down to goal difference as to who can guarantee a knockout spot, but a third place finish also brings a possibility of a knockout spot depending on the performance of other third place finishers, a way through which even India can hope for a bit of luck, if the manage to win over Syria.

In goal for Syria stands Ahmad Madanieh, in front of which the solid backline is formed by Ajan, Krouma, Ousou and Weiss from left to right. 24 yr old Ousou plays for Slavia Prague while Weiss plays in Greece, the other defenders and Gk playing across clubs in Syria. The midfield line of the 4-4-2 comprises of Ammar, Ezequiel, Jalil and Mahmoud from left to right who play club football in the first divisions of Slovakia, Argentina, Malaysia and Syria respectively. The double striker partnership is formed between Ibrahim and Pablo who play for Argentine and Peruvian clubs respectively.

As Syria regressed financially from after the war, sports funding reduced significantly, thus clubs had no money to pay their players. The league is also riddled with corruption and poor organisation; thus, the best players have been forced to ply their trades in Europe and South America. This has led to better competition and opposition for the Syrian players and thus they have developed into technically sound players, and have the mental systems need to play against challenging opposition.

Syria attacking zones (Courtesy: @statpeekers via X)

When taking a look at the attacking zones of Syria and India, it can be inferred both are not much interested in central attack. While Syria have a slight leftward bias, India prefer to exploit the right channels more. Syria’s left mid Ammar Ramadan has impressed in both matches against Uzbekistan and Syria, and can prove threatening against the not so stable right side of our defense.

India had an atrocious first half against the Uzbeks. The wingers weren’t marked properly, full backs were aggressive but had little influence in attack, which led to gaping holes not only in wide positions but also in central ones as both CBs had to stretch to cover the spaces; and the biggest sin of them all, ball-watching instead of man-watching. These shortcomings were punished in nearly all of their goals conceded against Australia then Uzbekistan.


India attacking zones (Courtesy: @statpeekers via X)

The midfield combination of Apuia, Suresh and Thapa doesn’t have the creative edge or the individual prowess to find wingers or the strikers through narrow channels, thus either sacrificing Thapa or Suresh for Brandon or Sahal is very needed to establish midfield dominance (since the 4-4-2 has 2 CMs and Indians have 3 midfielders), and to bring a departure from the predictable touchline hugging throughs (grounded or lobbed) from the full back to the winger.

A significant difference between these two underdogs in this group, which has ultimately resulted in a remarkably better performance for the Syrians is their devotion to the basic principles of proper man marking and not rushing things. When India won back position, and the opposition pressed high, there was this innate fear of losing the ball in a dangerous position so the Indians lost the ball in a not-so-dangerous position, or in simpler words, they aimlessly launched the ball to outer space.

Syria’s strict defensive organisation leaves little room for opposition progression (Courtesy: AFC Asian Cup YT)

On the other hand Syria understood that the risk of meandering through the press through astute positioning, physical dominance (not falling trying to get a foul at a slight push rather muscling out the opposition to continue the systematic buildup) and cheeky body feints to confuse the opponent, because at the end of the day, textbook football cannot bring rewards, because everyone has access to the textbook, there needs must be some moves which confuse your opponents, make them charge at you to create spaces, and have unexpected players charge through the lines, aspects Australia and Uzbeks have shown us till now.

There are still certain aspects Syria lack at. Their attack typically ends in a move which goes like this: left/right mid finds a progressing pass to one of the forwards to drop down the bit, other forward makes a sudden acceleration to make himself available for a pass, and on getting the ball, tries to push himself between the lines, or tries to find the other forward who by now is attacking the space between two defenders. This is where India needs to focus, to not be unnecessarily aggressive and concede a penalty or create too much space for the other striker to run into. 

Syria tend to rush their attack sometimes (Courtesy: AFC Asian Cup YT)

Their forwards also target the near post a lot, thus Gurpreet needs to be very aware of that. India will have to continue their right biased attack cause their LB can commit an error occasionally but RB Weiss is an unpassable rock at the back. It is the only opportunity for India now to gain something positive out of an otherwise frustrating campaign, and with utmost patience while attacking and defensive lessons from previous games, it is very possible to catch the Syrians off guard once in a while and capitalise those chances.

Predicted Lineups:

Probable XI - Team India

Probable XI - Syria

Beyond the tumultuous backdrop of conflict, the beautiful game in Syria emerges as a powerful catalyst for hope, unity, and healing. The triumph of football in Syria is not solely measured by victories on the field, but by the unbreakable spirit of players and fans who persevere in the face of unimaginable challenges. This extraordinary journey of Syria underscores the ability of sports to transcend geopolitical divides and serve as a symbol of collective strength.

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