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2018 World Cup qualifiers bring drama to the Middle East Open in fullscreen

Uri Levy

2018 World Cup qualifiers bring drama to the Middle East

Firas Al-Khatib [C] made a comeback after mocking Assad's regime [AFP]

Date of publication: 6 September, 2017

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The Middle Eastern World Cup qualifiers have proven to be a fascinating football scenario, mixing both football, politics, culture and history.
The 2018 World Cup qualifiers were played in the past week, and the drama flooded the scene in the Middle East.

As usual in the international breaks in the region, the main story must somehow connect to the Syrian national team, which has continued its heroic journey towards the forthcoming World Cup.

The Syrians have enjoyed the return of Omar Al Somah – Al-Ahli Jeddah's player and the best striker in Asia - who left the national team after supporting the Free Syrian Army back in 2012.

Like Firas Al-Khatib, who made the comeback after mocking Assad's regime, Al Somah was very emotional explaining his move.

"I felt bad with each second I was away from the national uniform", he said in a press conference before the match against Qatar in Malaysia, last Wednesday. "I'm not doing it for personal glory but for making millions of Syrians happy."

Somah's return was decisive.

Syria have beat Qatar 3-1 thanks to a brace by Omar Khribin and a goal by Mahmoud Awas. On the same time, Iran drew 0-0 with South Korea and Uzbekistan lost 1-0 to China, what created a crazy final day in Group A of the Asian qualifiers - Iran hosted Syria and Uzbekistan hosted South Korea – 3 teams, 1 direct ticket to the final and another playoff spot.

After the victory, Syria went to Tehran to play Asia's best – Iran - who already qualified for the World Cup. The excitement towards the match among many Syrians within Syria and abroad was imminent.

The Syrians have opened the match in storm, and after 13 minutes Tamer Haj Mohamed made the unbelievable and scored the 1-0 for the Qassioun Eagles. For a few minutes there, Syria was qualifying automatically to the finals. But Iran has turned around the result with a brace by Sardar Azmoun, and at half time things weren't optimistic for Al-Khatib, Somah and their friends. He second half was played under hard conditions as both teams struggled to create the chances but then – Somah rose.

On the 93rd minute, on a counter attack, he scored the equalizer for Syria and guaranteed that his team is going to play the World Cup playoffs. The explosive happiness of the Syrian players, staff and small crowd at the Azadi Stadium was inspirational. A country in an ongoing civil war, with hundreds of thousands of victims, millions of refugees, is celebrating on the football pitch.

Their first test will be against Australia, who finished 3rd on Group B, and if they will go through – against the 4th ranked national team from North/Central America, that in a certain chance could be the United States of America. Syria will look to host the next home game in a different location than Malaysia, somewhere that a home crowd will give it the right push and advantage.

Imagine this – Syria and the US are battling to qualify for the World Cup that will take place in Russia. If there isn't a written script for a Hollywood movie about it, now it's the time to write it.

On other matches – Saudi Arabia have lost to the UAE away, but won against already qualified Japan, and they will play the world cup finals in June 2018. Saudi Arabia is the first Arab team to qualify.

At the same time, the UAE are the most disappointed team of all. The Emiratis who were tipped to be the favourites to qualify did not live it up to the expectations and crushed out of the qualification spots.

Iraq have finished a generally disappointing qualifiers with a sweet taste winning both of their matches against Thailand and the UAE.

The Middle Eastern World Cup qualifiers have proven to be a fascinating football scenario, mixing both football, politics, culture and history.

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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