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Uri Levy

Road to Russia: This week in Middle East football

Not all Syrians are rooting for their national team [AFP]

Date of publication: 4 October, 2017

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Saudi Arabian giants al-Hilal have become the seventh most-followed football team on Twitter, while Syrians remain divided on whether to follow their team on a historic sporting journey.

The past week in Middle Eastern football was all about Al-Hilal, the giants from Riyadh.

The Saudi national champions scored two major goals, on and off the field. In the Asian Champions League semi-final first leg, the team hammered Iranian champions Persepolis 4-0, with a hat-trick from Syrian megastar Omar Khribin.

This result made headlines across the region, and marked Al-Hilal as favourites to win the tournament, a feat that has eluded the club since the year 2000.

The past weekend also saw the club pass the 8 million follower mark on Twitter - making Al-Hilal the seventh-most followed club in the world, after Real Madrid, Barcelona and the English "Big Four" - Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

It's a huge step for the Al-Hilal brand, which has suffered in recent years from the team's lack of success. The club now seems to have bounced back as one of Asia's top sport brands.

If the Blues do go on to win the Asian Champions League, they will qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup. There, they would meet another Arab team - as the African Champions League is facing a North African renaissance.

Football fans across the whole region are early waitig a match between Al-Hilal and perhaps Egypt's Al-Ahly, and later - maybe one of them against Real Madrid. 

Syrian dreams march on

Club football steps aside this week for international action, and all eyes in the region are on the Syrian national team in their Asian playoff double-header against Australia.

The Syrian team has qualified from the third stage of the World Cup qualifiers, following a dramatic draw with Iran in Tehran last month. The Syrian success comes after a vast investment by Assad's regime in the national team, turning a Cinderella story into international news - a squad from the war-torn country that is doing the unbelievable.
 
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After the match with Iran, tens of thousands hit the streets of Damascus to celebrate Syrian football's greatest ever achievement.

The Syrian national team has made Syrians all over the world, refugees too, to feel reunited, and has planted hopeful seeds in many hearts.

At the same time, human rights reports continue to detail hundreds of athletes and footballers that have been detained, imprisoned and killed by the Assad regime. And not all Syrians are thrilled with the sportive glorification of the current government of Syria, especially, of Bashar Al-Assad's exploitation of the football team as a PR shroud to cover his actions during the civil war.

The discussion whether to descibe the success of Syria's national teams as a purely footballing achievement - or as a political gain - has become a burning issue of international football in recent months.

Road to Russia

The heroic journey of the Syrians has included the return of rebel-supporting football stars Firas Al-Khatib and Omar Al-Somah. The pair became national heroes for many, saying they made their comeback "for the people of Syria, wherever they are, regardless of politics".

Together with rising Asian star Omar Khribin (from Al-Hilal), the three form the core of the Syrian team and its attacking force. Tamer Haj Mohamad, goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma and full backs Amro Al-Midani and Ahmed Al-Saleh are all integral parts of a team that will look to shock Australia at Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia.

After qualification to the playoffs, the Syrian FA looked for a different venue to host their home game against one of Asia's top sides, but FIFA has yet to approve their suggestions to play at Irbid in Jordan, Muscat in Oman or Abu-Dhabi in the UAE.

The FA want to host in a location with a large population, in order to provide the players with a supportive and warm atmosphere, but will have to settle for the half-empty stadium in the outskirts of the Malaysian city of Malacca.

Nevertheless, Syria has yet to lose in this stadium during their World Cup qualifying rounds.

Tim Cahill, Tom Juric, Massimo Luongo are all familiar names in Asian and world football, and will look to secure a positive result in Malaysia before taking the encounter to Sydney on October 10.

Australia are more than favourites for this double-header, but the Syrian team will be looking to snatch another unlikely surprise, and book their tickets to the World Cup in Russia.

If the Syrians continue their historic run and get past the Socceroos, they will meet the fourth-ranked team in the CONCACAF group (North and Central America) that would be one of Honduras, Panama or the USA.

There is yet a possibility that Bashar al-Assad's Syria and Donald Trump's USA will compete for a spot in Vladimir Putin's Russia.


Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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