You may remember Syria solely because of the civil war that has ravaged the country since 2011. In a nutshell, the Syrian Civil War started as part of the wider Arab Spring protests when the citizens of many Middle Eastern countries rose up in protest to topple existing regimes.
The success of the Arab Spring can be debated (only Tunisia has been able to establish a democratic government), but while the violence in most of the countries has lessened, Syria remains in turmoil (you can’t but feel terrible if you read the timeline of what has happened there). And this civil war has also affected their football to the point where international teams can no longer play there for fear of their safety (even though the local football clubs are still active).
However, what’s been making headlines recently isn’t that they’re playing in Malaysia but how they have a pretty decent chance of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia! But before that, how in the world are they even able to compete if they can’t play international matches at home? Enter: Malaysia.
Syria is currently so war-torn that their team is playing in Malaysia
For those of you who are not familiar with the World Cup, football’s world governing body, the The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, recognises 211 official associations from various countries around the world. And it’s safe to assume that being one of these 211 associations (or “countries”, because not every FIFA member is a recognised country), it also means that you will be eligible to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
Syria is one of the countries recognised by FIFA. But due to the war, they had to move their home matches to another “neutral” country. For their last 3 home matches, the games have been played at either the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Negeri Sembilan or the Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka.
And that’s how their games in Malaysia have gained so much recognition worldwide. Their 1-0 win over Uzbekistan moved them to 4th in their Asian qualifying group (we’ll explain how that’s a big deal later). Below is the goal that won them the game.
In the group they’re currently in, the top 2 teams qualify automatically, while the 3rd team advances to the play-offs (basically all the 3rd place teams fight to see who is the best 3rd place team, and that team also qualifies for the World Cup).
Still, why Malaysia?
Well, when we got in touch with the Football Association of Malaysia to find out why, a media person actually said that the decision was down to the Syrian Football Association. They may have chose us for various factors, and Malaysia actually doesn’t pay for their expenses; we only provide the venue. But for the specifics on why they chose Malaysia, the FAM rep said it was better to ask them personally.
We managed to establish contact with the General Secretary of the Syrian Football Assocation, but sadly at the time of writing, we weren’t able to get an interview with him. We’ll update when we do. 🙂 In the meantime….
So is Syria doing better than Malaysia in qualifying for the next World Cup?
Middle Eastern countries generally come under Asia when looking to qualify for the Olympics. (A few of them like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, have all qualified before.) If an Asian country wants to qualify for the World Cup, they would have to go through a few qualifying rounds. If you’re ranked high enough among Asian teams, you get to skip the first round and go straight to the second round.
- Round 1: 12 One-on-one elimination matches. The 6 winners progress to round 2.
- Round 2: 40 teams are divided into 8 groups with 5 teams each. Each team will play a home and away match with all members of their group. The 8 group winners and 4 best runners-up will advance to the 3rd round.
- Round 3: The 12 remaining teams will be divided into 2 groups of 6, to once again play a home and away match with all members of their group. The top two teams for each group qualify automatically for the World Cup. The two 3rd place teams advance to the 4th round.
- Round 4: The two 3rd place teams play at home and away against each other. The winner advances to the inter-confederation playoff (basically play against teams from other regions for what is called the last 2 spots in the World Cup).
FYI, Malaysia was knocked out in the round 2. We finished 4th in our group. On the other hand, Syria is currently in the round 3, and this is where they currently stand.
As the table shows, Syria is currently 4 points away from 3rd placed Uzbekistan, and if they are able to overtake Uzbekistan, they would qualify for round 4. Technically they actually do still have a chance to qualify since there are still 3 games left to play for both teams. So while their chances may look slim, the point is they still have a chance.
Miracles have happened in football before, so why not this?
Obviously as Malaysians, we could just go on about how Syria, a war-torn country, is actually doing better than us, but maybe we should look at the bigger picture….that if Syria does qualify for the World Cup, it would be quite a miracle. And it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.
Many football fans would still remember how Leicester City went against all odds and won the English Premier League last year, something that this article says is a story so spectacular that it’s never actually happened before. But aside from that, another war-torn country actually achieved the unexpected back in 2007.
Iraq was still in the midst of war when they shocked the world by winning the Asian Football Championship in 2007, beating teams like South Korea and Saudi Arabia along the way.
“You should come to see the jubilation and the joy which is spreading all over Baghdad’s streets now. People are pouring in, hundreds of thousands of people are pouring into the streets.” – Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, as quoted by BBC
And if it’s happened before, why can’t it happen again? Well, the only way for us to be sure is to wait and see. In fact, why not catch them the next time they play in Malaysia. The locations haven’t been determined yet but as things stand, their next 2 matches would probably played in Malaysia on June 13th and August 31st (if you’re not involved with any Merdeka celebrations that is). So go watch them, and even support them if you want to. We’re sure they would appreciate it. 🙂