Syria saves World Cup qualification bid with late equalizer

 06 Sep 2017 - 8:08

Syria saves World Cup qualification bid with late equalizer
Syria's players celebrate after scoring a goal against Iran during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iran and Syria at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017. / AFP / ATTA KENARE

By AMIR VAHDAT | Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran: Syria scored deep into stoppage time at Iran to keep alive its hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time amid an ongoing civil war at home.

With Syria facing elimination from Asian qualifying, Omar al-Soma marked his return to the team after a five-year absence to clinch a 2-2 draw and a place in the playoffs.

Players, with "Syria" rather than names emblazoned across the back of their red jerseys, sank to their knees on the turf in Tehran. From the bench, members of the team's staff with flags streamed onto the field.

Back home, the pursuit of a place at the World Cup in Russia has provided a flicker of joy in parts of a country divided by six years of war. Big screens were erected in public squares the Syrian capital Damascus for public screenings and fans also packed into coffee shops and sports halls to watch the broadcast from Iran.

Thousands of dancing fans filtered onto the streets of Damascus chanting "Syria" and waving the country's flags, bringing traffic to a complete halt in the city center.

"This is the happiest day of my life," said Bashir Rahal, a 26-year old, who was watching the game in a Damascus hotel, with the country's flag on a table in front of him.

Outside, the skies lit up with pyrotechnics, some launching red tracers above the thousands of revelers who filled the streets, leaning out of their car windows or marching in the city center. The upbeat news from the country's soccer team came on the same day troops reached Deir el-Zour, in eastern Syria, breaching a months-old siege on government troops by Islamic State militants.

"There are two victories today: the army entered Deir el-Zour and we equalized with Iran, which I consider a victory," said Fayeq Shmais, a 46-year-old government employee. "Syria is witnessing a revival as large rallies roam the streets of Damascus. This is something we have not seen since the start of the crisis."

But soccer is not completely unifying the country, with even a sporting success politicized. Some fans also chanted the name of the Syrian President Bashar Assad on the streets of Damascus.

Online opponents of Assad were also vocal. Some called it a team that represents the government, while others shared pictures of athletes and soccer players who were killed during the war.

Syria's opponent on the field Tuesday — Iran — is a regional political ally that has provided crucial political and military support to shore up Assad's forces in the war.

Qualification could have been automatically clinched with a victory in Iran, which had nothing to play for after already securing its place in Russia.

Now Syria will have to qualify the hard way for its first trip to the FIFA showpiece.

Syria will discover later Tuesday who it will play in a two-match Asian series next month. To make the World Cup, the winner will then have to beat a team form the CONCACAF confederation covering North and Central America, and the Caribbean.