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Dancing in Damascus as Syria keeps Russia 2018 World Cup dream alive with last-gasp goal

in Middle East by

In one of the biggest public outpourings of joy in the Syrian capital since war broke out six years ago, residents of Damascus danced in the streets, hugged each other and honked their horns as their football team kept its hopes alive of qualifying for its first-ever World Cup.

Every café with a TV filled up with customers on Tuesday evening, while thousands gathered in front of a giant screen in a central square to watch Syria play Iran in the last match of the current stage of AFC qualification.

The omens were good: Iran had already finished top of the group, and gone through to Russia 2018, so was playing for pride. Depending on the result of a parallel game between Uzbekistan and South Korea, a win could see Syria clinch a guaranteed World Cup place, while even a draw could be sufficient to reach the play-offs.

Syria got off to a good start, scoring the opening goal – the first Iran conceded during the campaign so far – through a header by Tamer Haj Mohamad, who, like the majority of the country’s players, has had to move abroad.

But the tide turned, as rising star Sardar Azmoun scored two goals without reply. As the match reached the 90th minute, Syria knew that it needed at least a draw.

Then a Syrian player intercepted the ball in midfield, setting off a quick counterattack. Stretching the retreating Iranian defense, Mardik Mardikian threaded a ball through to striker Omar Al Somah.

The cries of the Syrian team and staff echoed through the suddenly-silent Azadi Stadium, as players invaded the pitch brandishing a Syrian flag.

Between cries of “Al Somah!” and “Allah!” the commentator, on the verge of a breakdown uttered that “God must be pleased at what he is seeing.”

In Damascus, the emotion was multiplied many times over.

Syria was one match away from qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and hasn’t come as close since.

Despite the draw, it still faces a difficult road to the 32-team tournament in Russia next June.

Syria, which has been playing its nominal “home” games in Malaysia, will now face a two-legged play-off against Australia. If the underdog emerges victorious, the final opponent will be the fourth-place team from CONCACAF, the confederation which includes Central and North America, with Honduras, Panama or the United States the current most likely opponents.

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