When France opens its World Cup campaign in Kazan on Saturday, the opponent could have very well been Syria. The war-torn West Asian nation came agonisingly close to beating Australia in the play-off only to see Tim Cahill score an extra-time winner and plunge a dagger into the Syrian heart by taking its place.
“The World Cup was our dream and we are very sad not to be here,” said Firas Al-Khatib, one of Syria's prominent players, who had featured in the defeat last November. “But this is how football is. For six years we have had war back home. So we can't play there. We played outside in Malaysia. Still we reached the last stage [of qualification]. So what we did was great. We will now try and be there the next time.”
Read: Rebuilding 'Brand Russia' through football
Al-Khatib was in fact at the centre of it all. One of his country's best forwards (62 caps, 29 goals), he and a few others, for five long years, had refused to play for the national team as it was perceived to be closely linked to the under-fire President Bashar Al-Assad. But along with Omar Al Soma, who scored the opener in the second leg against Australia, he had a change of heart and chose to return.
The move earned him an equal number of friends and enemies; the latter were especially part of those millions who had fled the country as refugees. While refusing to be drawn into the reasons for his decision, Al-Khatib believed that it was possible to sustain the euphoria the qualification campaign had created both in the regime and rebel-held parts of Syria.
“That story [on why he returned] is long. But I finally came back to help my team, people and the country to get to the World Cup. Football can bring about peace. All the people – those for the government and against the government all get behind the team. Our desire is only to make the Syrian people happy. We are not very bothered about politics.”
Things at home were changing for the better, Al-Khatib felt. “For the first two years of the war we didn't have a league. Many players went abroad and some retired. Even our coaches left. But we are trying to come back. We now have a league. Some 20,000 fans come to watch and support the teams. This is very good step.”
The next target, Al-Khatib said, was the AFC Asian Cup to be held in UAE in January 2019. “We are a good team in Asia, ranked sixth. We want to reach the semifinals at least. We have the talent and also a good coach from Germany now [Bernd Stange]. He is experienced and will certainly help us.”
(The writer is in Moscow at the invitation of Football for Friendship)