September 6, 2017 / 4:47 PM / 19 days ago

Soccer: Spirited Syrians battling to achieve World Cup dream

People gather as they watch a telecast of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers between Iran and Syria, in Damascus, Syria September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

(Reuters) - Syria’s team spirit has kept the war-torn nation in contention to qualify for their first soccer World Cup and Ayman Hakeem’s side will need to muster more of the same attitude to deliver a storybook ending to their remarkable journey.

For the fourth time in five games Syria scored in the dying seconds when they met Iran on Tuesday as Omar Al Soma slid the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs to earn a 2-2 draw that sets up a two-legged playoff with Australia next month.

Since March, Qatar, China and Uzbekistan have all been on the receiving end of last-gasp goals from the Syrians as the country’s World Cup dream moved closer to reality.

A 91st minute Omar Khrbin penalty secured a 1-0 win against Uzbekistan while Ahmad Al Saleh’s curling free kick three minutes into added time salvaged a point against Marcello Lippi’s China as the Syrian bandwagon gained momentum.

Mahmoud Al Mawas continued the trend last month when he scored a decisive late third in a 3-1 victory over Qatar.

This time it was Al Soma, who only returned to the squad last month after a self-imposed exile due to his stance on the civil war at home.

The 28-year-old slipped the ball into the net in the 93rd minute to empty the Syrian bench in celebration and seal third place in the group and entry into the playoffs.

“Hopefully we can continue along this road as we have two important matches and I hope we can continue with our good performances,” said the Saudi Arabia-based striker.

“I want to thank my team mates, who were heroes as they put in a great performance.”

If Syria do get past Australia they will then face an intercontinental playoff against a CONCACAF team with the winners securing a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia.

HARD ROAD

Syria have had to do things the hard way, with soccer’s world governing body FIFA not permitting the team to play at home due to the continuing security concerns in the country.

Malaysia has hosted Syria’s matches in the final phase of qualifying, leaving the fans to follow the team from afar.

The political situation has also been reflected in the make-up of the squad as the qualifying campaign has evolved.

Veteran forward Firas Al Khatib, who had refused to join up with the team due to his opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, ended his boycott in March, leaving Al Soma as the last remaining high-profile stay away.

His stance softened, however, and the Al Ahli striker - who has been top scorer in the Saudi league for each of the last three seasons - relented in August, returning for the 3-1 win over Qatar last week.

Al Soma’s influence was even more telling on Tuesday as it was from his free kick that Tamer Haj Mohamad eventually opened the scoring before Sardar Azmoun’s double put Iran in front, leaving Al Soma to become the hero in the final seconds.

“We tried our best to qualify directly but, as you saw, we have played against the best team in Asia and we managed to score twice against them despite the fact that they hadn’t conceded in the third round,” said Hakeem.

“We proved that we are a good side and despite all the difficulties that we had we managed to get a good result. I hope that we can continue our dream in the play-offs and qualify to the World Cup.”

Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong; Editing by Ken Ferris

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