Syrian eleven, Azkals fight for football glory

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ROMY P. MARIÑAS

Eighty percent of Australia’s national football team, the Socceroos, play abroad in highly competitive leagues (as of October 2017), according to its coach Ange Postecoglou.

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No footballer from Syria plays in any foreign league.

The Syrians will be the Australians’ opponent in a make-or-break clash for both sides on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) in an away qualifying game in Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.

The winner will be rewarded with a two-legged battle with the fourth-placed team—currently Panama—in the Concacaf federation and who knows a ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia if it handles the South American squad.

It probably would matter more for the Socceroos if they shut the door on their Arab rivals, given their experience of having contested the Jules Rimet Trophy five times.

Syria also probably would go crazy if they beat their host but, on the other hand, losing would not be a shameful exit from the Russian tournament, having come tantalizingly close to making its debut in world football’s biggest stage.

The odds are stacked against the Syrians—a six-year civil war has taken its toll on the national football team, which has found it excruciatingly hard to find a stadium in their homeland where they can train and practice.

Try to play football, or any sport for that matter, with bullets flying and congratulations if you would be able to find your footing.

Its inability to hone its skills at home has not stopped the Syrian eleven from “dreaming,” according to its coach Ayman al-Hakim.

“Our match with Australia in Sydney is difficult, and although we’ll be missing five players [through injuries or suspension], we are used to playing outside of our land,” al-Hakim said.

Whatever the result of Wednesday’s game will be, Syria already had sports immortality written on its now ruined land.

In 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, heptathlete Ghada Shouaa, then 23, won the Olympic gold medal, the first by a Syrian, male or female.

Meanwhile, the Philippine national football team, the Azkals, were in the same boat as the Syrians on Tuesday (local time) when they squared off with their Yemeni rivals in Qatar.

A victory for the Azkals, current leader in its group, would send them straight into the 2019 Asian Cup, the region’s top football tournament, which was bagged by Australia in 2015.

A loss, however, would complicate the standings and possibly would jeopardize automatic qualification for coach Thomas Dooley’s boys.

Of course, we expected the Philippine Azkals to win.

The Syria-Australia match, well, would be anybody’s game.

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