Seven years of civil war has torn Syria apart — and playing football might even be deemed a luxury in such circumstances.
But for the 23-member squad camped in the UAE since last week as they prepare for the Asian Cup, hope springs eternal. The team hopes to unite the country and bring cheer to a nation bogged down by despair, and the excitement amongst players is palpable, having missed out on the previous edition of the tournament in Australia.
Syria, who also narrowly lost out on a chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, hope this time around to live up to the expectation of their fans, who bought out all the tickets for the team’s three group outings well in advance.
With the Syrian embassy having distributed over 10,000 T-shirts to fans, a full house certainly awaits the squad on January 6 in Sharjah — when they kick off their campaign against Palestine.
On January 10, they take on Jordan, another Arab nation, ahead of their daunting face-off against defending champions Australia on January 15 at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
German coach Bernd Stange, 70, who came out of retirement to take charge of the squad, is well aware of what the fans’ support means and the wonders in terms of morale that it can do for his team.
“Fans are the most important weapon of our team. I’m aware of our fans who will fill the stands and that’s not something that I haven’t dealt with before in Germany,” Stange said. “The fans are our No 1 player and our team wants to give their best possible gift to them.”
In an interview with the AFC website, Stange said the team is so motivated that they can do well with anyone as coach and believes they will progress from the group stage.
“They do it alone, they don’t need a coach. You can’t teach them confidence; confidence comes with results,” he said.
“Confidence comes from signing great contracts. Confidence comes from being a millionaire with Al Ahli or at other clubs.
“I was in Syria when I was the coach of Singapore and they were at a low level because of the situation, but what they’ve done over the last three years — by going and playing abroad for big clubs in West Asia — is amazing. It comes from them alone, it’s not a matter of coaching,” said the German.
“They have the heart to make it this time. We are in a tough group but our first objective obviously would be to progress from the group stage,” he added.
“We face Palestine in the first game and that’s where our focus is at the moment. It’s a very important game to start our campaign. The Asian Cup is a challenge for all teams but we don’t fear any kind of opposition. We have the courage, determination and discipline to achieve what we want.”
Stange also revealed that revenge will be the extra motivation when they take on an Australia side that shattered their dreams of qualifying for the last World Cup, beating Syria 3-2 on aggregate in the qualifier in October 2017.
“It was a bitter disappointment indeed for Syria but they can take a lot of confidence from the strong footprint they left behind in that competition.
“The players are now hungry to win and offer their best in the Asian Cup. They want to improve their position as professional players and look for new opportunities that may come their way during this tournament,” asserted Stange, whose team is also missing the service of their 35-year-old experienced skipper Firas Al Khatib due to injury.
In Al Khatib’s absence, a lot will be on the shoulders of Omar Kharbin, who plays for Saudi Arabia’s high-profile club Al Hilal and was also Syria’s first player to clinch the AFC Player of the Year award in 2017.
Other players to watch out for are Mohammad Othman, who plays for Heracles in Eredivisie in Holland and is the stand-in captain Omar Al Soma, who also plays for Al Ahli.
Mahmoud Al Mawas, who is the mainstay at Qatari Club Umm Salal Sports Club, also has plenty of experience to offer.