Syria seek win to soothe pain

ASIAN CUP QUALIFIER

SINGAPORE v SYRIA

(Tuesday, 7.45pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)

Hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions have been made refugees.

Amid rumours of chemical weapons being used against civilians, daily atrocities such as kidnap, rape, torture and mutilation have been rampant for at least two years now as Syria remains mired in a civil war between government forces and rebels.

Yet, like a bloom in the desert, the Syria national football team have given their countrymen a reason to smile.

For sure, the Red Eagles are no world-beaters.

Ranked 143rd in the world, they are just 16 positions above Singapore, and in recent times, Syria have lost to lower teams such as India and the Maldives.

The turmoil back home had also led to the suspension of the national league in 2011, and the country's top players went abroad for opportunities to play - 21 out of the 23 players here in Singapore for Tuesday's Asian Cup qualifier ply their trade out of Syria.

There is also a story about a promising Under-23 goalkeeper Abdelbasset Saroot, who lost his home, brother and uncle and survived three attempts on his life, and became a marked man on the run from Syrian authorities for being a leader of the rebels in battle-scarred Homs.

Forget the luxury of a smooth astroturf playing surface like the one at Jalan Besar, Syria cannot even play at their home ground Abbasiyin Stadium in capital Damascus due to security reasons.

Instead, they have hosted their home games in Jordan or Iran since 2011, having last played in Damascus in the 1-0 defeat by Iraq in December 2010.

And they don't have a brand new billion-dollar sports hub to look forward to.

The squad is drawn from all over Syria, from Damascus and Aleppo to Hama and Homs, cities at the sharp end of the current struggles, subjected to army bombardment and fierce crackdowns.

But, driven by a steely determination to triumph in such adversity, coupled with the exposure to higher quality football - midfielder Louay Chanko plays for Swedish side Syrianska and striker Sanharib Malki plays in Turkey for Kasimpasa while most play in Iraq - there are signs of a talented squad rising.

STUNNING

The Syria Under-23s produced a stunning 2-1 win over Japan in the 2012 Olympics qualifiers and were two victories away from getting their improbable tickets to London.

Later in December that year, even as they were recovering from their worst position of 150th in the Fifa rankings, Syria won their first major football title since the 1957 Pan Arab Games, when they beat Iraq 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation Championship.

And now, the Red Eagles are hoping to qualify for the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015. Their captain and goalkeeper Mosab Balhous believes their success can have a profound effect at home.

"Football can help to some degree in restoring people's spirits and social cohesion especially between the members of the team itself," said the 30-year-old, who has 90 caps for Syria.

"Despite the situation, we have brushed off our personal suffering and achieved some excellent results recently. This has raised our morale and given great joy to all Syrians."December 2010.

And they don't have a brand new billion-dollar sports hub to look forward to.

The squad is drawn from all over Syria, from Damascus and Aleppo to Hama and Homs, cities at the sharp end of the current struggles, subjected to army bombardment and fierce crackdowns.

But, driven by a steely determination to triumph in such adversity, coupled with the exposure to higher quality football - midfielder Louay Chanko plays for Swedish side Syrianska and striker Sanharib Malki plays in Turkey for Kasimpasa while most play in Iraq - there are signs of a talented squad rising.


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