Syria is currently enduring an era of arduous and baleful suffering. Although, still left are the few hundred men immersed in the footballing scene, striving to create an efficient development system that ensures the growth of footballers in the war-stricken nation.
Develop and grow they did, with Syria’s U-17 team now looking forward to joining North Korea, South Korea and Australia as Asian representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile this October. A group of players based locally, encompassed by the concept of imminent failure, quietly eased past Uzbekistan into the final four of the AFC U-16 Championship thus confirming their status as a U-17 World Cup participant. The contemporary Syrian football generation gives hope to their posterity; posterity marred by negligence from autocratic businessmen looking solely to secure their financial position.
A pair of draws with wealthy Gulf nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar left Syria needing at least a draw with talented Iran to qualify for the quarter finals. Iran were exemplars of Middle Eastern giants, with dominating periods over the AFC Asian Cup, WAFF Championship and Asian Games certifying their pre-eminence over the region. The U-17 team was no stranger to success either with a 2008 AFC U-16 Championship triumph (beating none other than Syria in the quarter finals) and a Second Round appearance in Al-Ain during the 2013 edition of the U-17 World Cup.
Syria punishing Iran’s high and unusually positioned defensive line was no mere coincidence, although the sight of a defensively anarchic Iran juxtaposed Carlos Queiroz’s infamous tactical master plan with the senior team. Saudi Arabia and Qatar had their fair share of chances to take control against Team Melli in the previous games although Mohammed Jaddoua and Naim Naim broke through twice during the first half proceedings to shock Iran. Mohammad Soltanimehr’s free kick just before the brink of half time oozed beauty; a mere consolation for what was a complacent Iranian side.
The myth of group rankings failed to manipulate Syria with a 5-2 thrashing taking them through against a previously undefeated Uzbekistan. A damp pitch worked in favour of the Arab country with Abd Al-Rahman Barakat bagging a hat trick in the space of 32 minutes before his teammates Jaddoua and Anas Al-Aji helped Syria blow the Uzbeks away in the first hour. Cries of acrimony towards Barakat’s age were quickly shunned and Syria made history on yet another occasion. A 7-1 drubbing to mighty South Korea in the semi-final exposed their weaknesses but didn’t stop their celebrations.
Syria U-17, led by Marwan Al-Khoury as previous coach Mohammad Al-Attar stuck to the U-16 group, is stuck in a quandary. With the Syrian FA currently engrossed in bigger problems concerning the league, presidential elections and the senior national team in the World Cup qualifiers (which includes the prolonging saga of the inclusion of star striker Omar Al-Soma) it seems tough for the teenagers looking to represent their country, stuck in dangerous conditions at the time of writing.
There has been little sign of progression with an article as recent as the 17th of June by Syrian football expert Nasser Al-Najjar stating that there has been a lack of any news regarding preparation for the World Cup with the exception of training every day in camp under the management of Khoury. The teenagers are currently training in the city of Al-Jalaa, part of Deir-El-Zor – currently near the areas of ISIS control.
This was up until they organised a couple of friendly games with their Arabian counterparts Bahrain and Lebanon, losing 1-0 and 2-1 against the former and winning 3-1 and 2-1 against Lebanon in the process. Presently, a trip to South Korea is up next on the list in the phases of preparation for the final training camp staged in Chile. This does come as a surprise after the SFA have continuously shown their negligence towards the U-17 team, with the group having different pairs of socks, different versions of red shirts and shorts, too, compared to their teammates.
Nasser Al-Najjar voiced his discontent towards this, and I quote: “We say, if the situation continues as per do not expect any fireworks from our nation, and this is not a pessimistic look, rather it is the reality that we see and the logic that imposes itself”.
Conversely, Marwan Khoury spoke about the positives that the training camp in South Korea will bring: “The camp in South Korea will be a very good indicator of where my players are at, technically and physically. The key is to continue developing their levels and ability to play fluidly between individual and team instructions and the capability of the player to carry out what is asked. My players also have to be able to move between all three phases (defence-midfield-attack) with no problem.”
U-16 groundwork towards Kuwait, India
Mohammad Al-Attar will take the reins once again as he prepares to lead the team towards another AFC U-16 Championship appearance, staged in India next year. Qualification begins this year though with an 8-day period between the 12th and 20th of September occupying the nation’s eyes in the vicinity of hope and faith in it’s descendants.
Afghanistan – pitted once again with Syria after being grouped with them in the 2018 World Cup / 2019 Asian Cup Qualification – and Sri Lanka join Kuwait and Syria in a group that seems to be in favour of the Kuwaitis, taking into account that they will be hosting the games too. But with the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee taking control over certain sectors in the KFA, stadiums unprepared and a Gulf Cup of Nations tournament a burden on the Gulf nation’s back; Syria’s opportunity to make their 6th consecutive AFC U-16 Championship appearance is glowing in the darkness.
This time, Syria’s squad will not consist of an entirely local squad. As the Syrian diaspora reaches extreme heights with some saying around 10 million fleeing the country since 2011, the better players are sure to be discovered abroad; namely in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
The latter sees Abdulrahman Al-Sibai ply his trade there at an unnamed youth club, while Mohammad Arnaout hails from Kuwait and a surprising Dutch addition in Ahmad Al-Kharfan. Al-Kharfan seeks to become a regular in the Netherlands where a fellow Sanharib Malki did so with Roda JC.
Therefore, with the squad cut down from 120 to 35 and even less in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see the new breed of Syrian players looking to make a name on the Asian stage. With no working youth league in Syria at the current time there is little to cheer, as optimism amongst the footballing men drains by the day…
*NOTE: Mohammad Al-Attar’s position as U-16 head coach has been changed as Misfat Baniyas coach Ammar Al-Shamali takes over.