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Syria's improbable World Cup dream still alive

On the brink of elimination against Iran in the final group match last month, Omar Al Somah’s injury-time equalizer sent the Syrians through to a two-legged playoff against Australia.

That phenomenal spirit was very much in evidence in Thursday’s first leg to ensure the “Qasioun Eagles” now travel to Australia with serious hopes of reaching a first ever World Cup.

Star striker Al Somah again came to Syria’s rescue, this time scoring an 85th-minute penalty to cancel out Robbie Kruse’s first half goal to leave everything still to play for in Tuesday’s second leg in Sydney.

Despite being a home fixture for Syria, Thursday’s match was played in Malaysia due to the civil war in the Middle East country.

The United Nations estimates 400,000 Syrians have been killed with the ongoing violence condemned by the Arab League, the European Union, the US and many other countries.

“FIFA has been following the conflict in Syria with deep concern and sadness,” said the world governing body in a statement sent to CNN. “Unfortunately, football and football players are only few of the many victims of this terrible conflict that has torn Syrian society apart.

“Over recent years, FIFA has been made aware of allegations by several parties — often contradicting information according to the different sources — concerning violence that has affected the practice of football in the country.

“Acknowledging the limits of our jurisdiction and capacity to verify any allegation in such a complex setting, FIFA has supported any effort aiming to ensure that athletes can enjoy football in a violence-free environment while reminding the Syrian Football Association (SFA) of its obligations with regard to independence and to ensure that its affairs are not influenced by any third party.”

The match

Syria fans cheer on their team ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Australia.

Despite dominating possession in the first half, a severe shortage of quality all over the pitch meant Australia rarely looked like troubling a resolute and organized Syrian side.

In fact, it was a smart Syrian break against the run of play which almost broke the deadlock.

Twisting and turning down the right, before eventually wriggling free of his marker, Youssef Kalfa drilled in a low cross which Al Somah hooked just inches wide of the near post.

Australia’s pressure did tell eventually though. Striker Tomi Juric cut inside on the right of the box and his fortunate, scuffed shot fell into the path of Robbie Kruse, who diverted the ball into the net.

As the first half wore on in Malaysia, the ‘Qasioun Eagles’ began to get a foothold in the game.

After hitting the post twice in a matter of seconds early in the second half, Australia — either through a lack of quality or ambition, or both — sat back and Syria duly began to dominate.

The Socceroos had to withstand a series of Syrian attacking moves, which were now slick and penetrating.

Robbie Kruse celebrates giving Australia the lead, as Syria's players look on dejected.

Midway through the second half, it looked as though Syria’s luck had run out. After coming close on multiple occasions, it was that man Al Somah who looked to have finally drawn the scores level.

Firas Al Khatib, widely considered Syria’s greatest player and on with fresh legs as a second half substitute, got to the byline and clipped a cross to the near post.

Al Somah’s header hit the post, hit goalkeeper Matthew Ryan on the shoulder, before again hitting the post and bouncing fortuitously into Ryan’s grateful arms.

Far from being discouraged though, Syria pressed on. Seemingly out of luck all game, it was a stroke of good fortune — or generous refereeing — which eventually gave them a route back into the game.

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Al Somah was deemed to have been fouled in the air by Mathew Leckie while jumping for a cross and Iranian official Alireza Faghani pointed to the spot — a soft decision by any standards.

The Al Ahli striker picked himself up and, coolness personified, dispatched the ball emphatically into the top corner, sending the sizable Syrian contingent in the stands wild.

With five minutes still left to play — plus five of injury time — Syria continued to press forward in search of a late winner.

It almost came from an unlikely source, left-back Moayad Ajan’s pile driver had Ryan at full stretch, tipping the strike inches over the crossbar.

With the final whistle, a visibly emotional Syrian team sunk to their knees, heads to the ground in prayer.

Having come so far — now to within three games of the World Cup — who would begrudge them continuing to hope.

Australia’s defensive midfielder Mark Milligan was left less than impressed by both the penalty decision and playing conditions, though sounded convinced they would eventually get past 75th-ranked Syria on home soil.

“I think we were a bit unlucky. I thought we dealt with the long direct play,” he told Asian television after the match. “We’re very confident. We will go home and get them on a good pitch in front of our home fans.”

Aaron Mooy, currently playing in the Premier League with Huddersfield and arguably Australia’s best player, echoed the sentiments of his compatriot.

“There was a decision that didn’t go our way but you just have to recover and get ready for the next game,” he said.

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