Even football fans with wild imaginations would have struggled to conceive this match. Syria. A nation with no home to play in the midst of civil war, dealing with one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times. Australia. An established continental power ever since it transferred its membership to the Asian Football Confederation.
Not many would have predicted the AFC’s pre-continental playoff to feature Syria and Australia. Yet, after an exciting Asian World Cup qualifying campaign, here we are. Syria vs Australia. Let that sink in for a moment.
Syria were never expected to challenge Iran and South Korea for the top two spots in AFC Group A. At most, people thought avoiding the wooden spoon in the group would be a great achievement. China had invested a huge amount of resources behind their national team. Uzbekistan had previous experience of such campaigns. Like China, Qatar too had tremendous state backing.
Somehow, through determination and perseverance, Syria ended above all of them to take third in the group. All this, while playing their “home” games in Malaysia, selecting players who barely played regular club football. To understand the full extent of their enormous difficulties, do take the time to read this fantastic piece on the BBC.
Australia on the other hand, are in crisis just for being here. How did they not qualify directly for the World Cup? Playoffs were meant to be a thing of the horrible past once Australia switched federations from Oceania to Asia. Qualifying in 2010 and 2014 was a mere formality. Winning the Asian Cup in 2015 was meant to fortify their dominance.
It has all turned out rather differently. The start was good with routine victories over Iraq and the U.A.E. Then came back-to-back draws against Japan at home and Saudi Arabia away. The dropped points meant the Aussies ceded ground to direct rivals. They were never able to make up the ground.
Listless draws followed against Thailand and Iraq (another nation with no home to play football). They barely scraped home victories against Thailand and Saudi Arabia, before being thoroughly outclassed in a 2-0 loss in Japan. The damage was done, the playoff being the solace.
Expectations and Pressure
The two teams have reached this stage through contrasting journeys. There is however, one factor that unites them ahead of this clash. Pressure.
It’s easy to say Syria are already winners for being here. That does an injustice to their actual football ability. Not to forget, the immense political ramifications of their success. While most Syrians are undoubtedly proud of the players, it hasn’t escaped many that the current government has used the team as an effective propaganda tool. Such heavy baggage poses an altogether different set of difficulties.
For the Green and Gold’s, it’s a question of pride. 2002 was the last time they didn’t qualify for a World Cup. Unlike the generation of Kewell and Viduka, this is not a particularly skilful vintage of Australian footballers. Nevertheless, like most Australian sportsmen, they don’t know when to give up. As the adage goes, an Australian team is never beaten on paper.
Despite their travails in the campaign up to this point, Australia come into this game as favourites. Aaron Mooy and Matthew Leckie have had excellent starts to the season for Huddersfield and Hertha Berlin respectively. Tom Rogic has the x-factor as seen in his performances for Celtic, while veteran Tim Cahill can still score important goals.
They have however struggled in South East Asia on their last few visits. They were overawed by the climate when visiting Thailand and a similar test awaits them in Malaysia.
Syria will definitely have an advantage considering their familiarity with the conditions. Relegating Syria’s chances to mere science and analytics however, is only half the story.
This is a team that won away in China and got a dramatic late equalizer in the reverse fixture. They beat Uzbekistan and Qatar at “home”, held South Korea to a draw and were the only team that were undefeated against group winners Iran. While every visitor capitulated in Tehran’s Azadi stadium, Syria went there for their last match and left with a 2-2 draw, (the only goals Iran conceded across 10 games) sealing their playoff place.
23-year old Omar Khribin is the key for Syria. On his shoulders lie his nation’s hopes. The Al Hilal striker has scored 25 goals in 32 games this year, including a hat trick last week in the Asian Champions League.
Between the ears and in the heart
Ultimately though, these two games are going to be about the intangibles. Perseverance, desire, mental toughness and determination will come to the fore.
There is an aspect however that may prevail above all else. It’s often said that romance is dead in football. As neutrals from far and wide tune into an AFC playoff for the first time on Thursday, we may yet end up witnessing a spectacle that rekindles our romance for the beautiful game.