By Tim Adams
Mention Syria and pictures of devastating death and destruction painfully creep into your heads. The six-year civil war has taken this once prosperous nation to its knees.
Bullets and bombs rain down across the dark, dusty battlefield, gunfire in Aleppo louder than the screams of innocent people trying to save their loved ones.
Last week, 4,526 miles away, in the sanctuary of the Hang Jebat Stadium, Malaysia, a squad of 23 Syrian football players took to the field to a faint echo of support.
The demise of the country has turned their team into a flickering beacon of hope, lighting the way across the horizon in a quest to defy the odds.
Syria (who placed fourth in the Asian Qualifying Group A) have a realistic chance of reaching the Russian World Cup in 2018. The top two qualify automatically, with the third-place side advancing to a continental play-off.
In war-torn Syria, people have got so used to the noise of mortar shells crackling through the air that they don’t even flinch and carry on with their daily lives.
So was it surprising that striker Omar Kharbin converted a 90th-minute penalty against Uzbekistan just under a month ago with a panenka? Probably not.
Ingrained into those players is a different kind of mental strength, one of an unbreakable bond. Economic sanctions and security fears have forced the team abroad, yet still, around 100 Syrian supporters cheered their nation on from the stands.
After the match, Syria’s manager Ayman Hakeem wept as he told the story of how qualifying for the World Cup would be a victory for the Syrian people.
Assistant manager, Tarek Jabban, earns just £80 a month. It is his love of the game, having captained Syria and played close for them 100 times, which no doubt drives him forward.
The Secretary General of the Syrian FA, Kouteibah Al Refai, has had to organise friendlies in a bomb-damaged office, part and parcel of the modern day challenges of working in the capital Damascus.
No money is provided to them directly from either the world governing body Fifa or from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The AFC have agreed to subsidise the £1.6m costs that hover over the team on their travels, but since the start of the war, the country’s currency has devalued by more than 1000%.
With economic uncertainty rife each Syrian player must have felt like they had won the lottery when they received their winning bonus of £800 each in their win over Uzbekistan, a figure far greater than the average citizen back home could even contemplate.
The best players have left, and the clubs are unable to attract any overseas talent. Unsurprisingly there are no foreign players in the league.
Al-Karama of Homs dominated the domestic league for over five years and even reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 2006, yet look at the city now, and it resonates with a past glimpse of Dresden, Nagasaki or Pompeii.
But the battle between so-called Islamic State, Kurdish forces, Bashar al-Assad rebels and government troops has just slowed down the progression of the league, not stopped it. Games are still played but at a less frequent rate, while the national team marches towards their dream on foreign sole.
On their recent trip to Malaysia, the Syrian players chatted away about Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid.
Zidane once spoke of how he cried as a young footballer because he had no shoes to play a game, but then noticed a man who had no feet and realised how lucky he was.
The division lines in Syria lie on the battlefield. Not on the football field.


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