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War-torn Syria seek joy through football in Intercontinental Cup

Mario Rodrigues

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Syia began their Intercontinental Cup campign defeating DPR Korea 5-2.

Mumbai: Spare a thought for the Syrian national team or the Syrian Arab Federation for Football or even their embattled leader who survived a US-inspired imperial plot to bring about ‘regime change’ by sponsoring the most dreaded bunch of terrorists possible.

Yet, despite the country being laid waste, crippling economic sanctions, security concerns and defections from the national team, Syria qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup and came within a whisker of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

The West Asian nation haven’t won much in international football, unlike India, which was a continental powerhouse in the days of yore, and despite the rapid whittling of its supremacy have managed to win enough silverware in its backyard in low rated regional competitions.

On the other hand, Syria’s last international success came way back in the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Championship.

Over the past decade Syria have been unsuccessfully trying to win a trophy in India, having sent teams to participate in the Nehru Cup in 2007, 2009 and 2012.

Since its inception in 1982, some of the best teams and players in the world have participated in this now forgotten tournament although the quality of teams had began to decrease with the passage of time and the diminishing clout of the central government. All these three editions of the Nehru Cup were held in the national capital.

In their first visit Syria topped the round-robin group stage in the five-team field also comprising Cambodia, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and India, defeating the Blue Tigers 2-3 en route.

But Bob Houghton’s boys turned the tables on the visitors with a 1-0 triumph in the title round courtesy an NP Pradeep strike. This was India’s maiden success in the tournament.

In 2009, with a marginally better team, Syria again topped the table after the round-robin group stage in a more competitive five-team field (Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and India), again defeating the hosts by a solitary goal in the league encounter.

In a pulsating final India took the lead in the 114th minute of extra time only for Syria to equalise in the dying seconds of the game. In the tie-breaker that went into sudden death, Subrata Pal saved three kicks to script a sensational win.

If Syria thought they would be third time lucky in 2012, it was not to be, as they finished fourth in the five-team field behind group toppers Cameroon, India and Maldives albeit ahead of Nepal and bowed out.

Wim Koevermans’ men went on to beat the higher ranked African nation in the final 5-4 via the tie-breaker after the match ended 2-2 and complete a hat-trick of titles.

Syria are now back to settle a long standing score. A second tier team in the continental arena behind the obvious powerhouses who invariably manage to qualify for the World Cup time and again, Syria have not enjoyed good results this year though they have sometimes held their own against the stalwarts in the recent past.

Under reinstated national coach Fajr Ibrahim (who has been here before) Syria bring a largely experimental team for the 2019 Intercontinental Cup (a misnomer now, since all the four teams figuring are Asian) with 13 players yet to make their senior international team debut and two who have less than a handful of appearances, meaning they are keen to give their recent under-23 squad some experience.

The experienced ones in the lot are skipper and 36-year-old forward Firas Al-Khatib (31 goals and 66 caps), goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma (49 caps), midfielder Temar Haj Mohamad (31 caps), defender Amro Jenyat and forward Nasouh Nakdali (20 caps each) and attacking midfielder Mohammad Marmour (seven caps) who play in Lebanon.

As the top ranked team and favourites, Syria have their task cut out. And they have begun with a bang, trouncing the 1993 Nehru Cup winners North Korea – another country subject to hostile and hypocritical economic sanctions by the West – 5-2 in their tournament opener.

Mario Rodrigues has worked for several publications in various capacities besides contributing to several others. He is a former editor of All Sports Magazine and author of Batting for the Empire -- A Political Biography of Ranjitsinhji.