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AFC Asian Cup, India vs Syria: Know your opponents - The Eagles of Qasioun

This meeting on the football pitch will last only an hour and a half, but it is for the survival of two familiar foes in the AFC Asian Cup. This final group stage game is coming with the essence of a knock-out stinger.

AFC Asian Cup, India vs Syria: Know your opponents - The Eagles of Qasioun

Syria football team


John Mathew

Updated: 23 Jan 2024 5:58 AM GMT

Syria and India are a story that goes way back; not in terms of football but in terms of contact and relations since the ancient days.

Be it through business or an exchange of cultural, other ethnic thoughts and beliefs, the two have been in close contact and almost on the same page always, be it at the diplomatic level or personal to person to level.

In fact, Syriac is a language that is even taught in several colleges across the southern states - especially in Kerala. But this meeting on the football pitch will last only an hour and a half, but it is for the survival of two familiar foes in the AFC Asian Cup. This final group stage game is coming with the essence of a knock-out stinger.

India v Syria - Nehru Cup 2007 (Image via Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports)

Syria's footballing landscape is not as colourful as India's domestic scenario, but their national team has proved to be a unit of respite and hope for the people of a nation which has been suffering for years from civil war. Their story in regards to football is one that of 'so close, yet so far' till now.

A member of AFC since 1969, this is their seventh Asian Cup appearance, none of which has seen them progress past the group stage - a record that they'll look to change this time around, having the slight upper-hand coming into the game against India.

With both sides even in head-to-head clashes (having 2 wins each), it could not have been set-up better. Syria is India's best bet at winning a game in Group B, and Syria would feel the exact same favouring themselves.

Syrian fans after their NT qualified for the 2018 World Cup play-offs (Image via Louai Beshara / AFP)

Syria's footballing history can't be rounded up without mentioning when the national team's bare fight to qualify for the 2018 World Cup stopped wars and united hearts. They couldn't reach Russia but it was enough to show what sports could do. Their determination was impeccable and it always persisted through.

They were the underdogs but they had no fear of barking and wouldn't mind to bite in-order to show their spite. They scrapped for points against Qatar and got 3, Japan flustered and lost out one too, Iran came next and could not win either. They added up its and bits and slowly built their tally, which was enough to take them to the 4th round of Asian qualifiers. 180 minutes and Australia was all that stood between Syria and a first ever world cup appearance; but all fairy-tales do not end happily ever after.

Syria v Japan in 2018 FIFA WC Qualifiers (Image credits - AP)

Mind you, Syria have not played a "home game" all this while as it is prohibited by FIFA owing to the situation in Syria. Had not Malaysia offered to host all of Syria's home games then, maybe they would've had to quit the qualification process. And so it became that on 10th October 2017, Syria played the Socceroos in Malaysia as their home leg in a 2-legged play-off for a spot in the World Cup. An 85th minute Omar Al Somah penalty meant both sides were level at the end of the first leg.

Second leg began with Syria immersed in joy as Omar scored again in the second minute in Sydney. Although the lead lasted only another 7 minutes, Syria had began to dream. Half-time came, full-time came and yet there was nothing breaking parity. As they went to extra-time, a nation was hoping and praying. Whatever the result maybe, for the next 30 minutes extra-time, the war seemed irrelevant. There was no divisions, no difference in thoughts, no enemies and no allies; just Syria at the World Cup in everyone's mind.

Tim Cahill's goal v Syria in the 2018 WC play-offs (Image via Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

But fate is a cruel architect often. The fairy-tale did not have its glorious ending. A 94th minute red-card to workaholic midfielder Mahmoud Al-Mawas created pores in the Syrian resistance and in the 113th minute; Australia's savior rose again. Tim Cahill poked in a header in utmost calmness to pull the roos' through to Russia and Syria was forced back into reality. That was Syria's moment, and the closest they have ever come to that name-making moment.

Now, moving into the present day; Syria's team and its environment has been one that's experienced severe turbulence in the recent years. If looking at the timeline from July of 2021, The Qasioun eagles are currently with their 5th coach in a span of around 30 months. If looking at just the current Asian Cup campaign, the shackles of the turbulent ecosystem around the side has seemed to be broken. Both India and Syria have played both of Australia and Uzbekistan so far, obtaining a different set of results. While Syria won a point against a lackluster Uzbek side, followed by a narrow 1-0 loss to the Aussies; India lost both games conceding 5 goals in total. Both Syria and India have not scored either.

Image via @afcasiancup on X

The Syrian coach, Héctor Cúper is a very interesting character as well. Currently 68 years old and known for his defensive acumen, the Argentine coach has led training in some of the world's best clubs including Inter Milan, Valencia and others. Since his turn to international management, he's been appointed head-coach of Egypt (led them at 2018 World Cup), Uzbekistan (at 2019 Asian Cup), DR Congo and now Syria. His Egyptian side lost the AFCON Final to Cameroon in 2017, and till date that is arguably the closest Mo Salah has come to an International accolade with his nation (along with the 2022 AFCON Final v Senegal).

Syrian head-coach Hector Cuper in a game against Vietnam

Why Hector Cuper is integral when talking about this Syrian side is because of his Argentine roots. Since Cuper's reign as head-coach, several new-face Syrian players with Syrian lineage are being called up to represent the nation, with a good number of them currently playing in the Argentinean football pyramid. With that said, the headlining decision from his Syrian squad was not who was called up, but rather who got left out. Remember Omar Al Somah, the rescuer in the WCQ's; the talismanic Syrian striker was dropped from the squad citing various reasons. Some say imjury, some say coaches' preference. Either way, Omar will not be one to be vary of for India.

But Syria has other top-class players too. Here's a couple that could prove to be detrimental.

Abdul Rahman Oues (#24) - Right-back - Kallithea (Greek 2nd Division)

Image credits - AFC

Arguably Syria's best player of the tournament so far, Oues has been phenomenal for the Qasioun eagles from right-back. In a set-up that was made to be impermeable defensively, he has been the sole creative aspect of the Syrians. Massively contributing to the defensive resilience, also progressing play from back to the final third, he has been fundamental for his side. He has also created the most chances for Syria (even though just 2) so far.

Pablo Sabbag (#11) - Striker - Alianza Lima (Peruvian 1st Division)

Image via Syrian FA

One of those foreign-born, Syrian citizenship holding players called up by Cuper, but Sabbag has been a mainstay in the side so far. Benching out Syrian star Omar Khribin, the 26 year old has started both games at the tournament so far. He's staked his claim to be the most potent Syrian forward by taking the (joint )biggest volume of shots, even though as little as they have been for Syria. At 188cm tall, he's also not the easiest to sway over in the air.

Ammar Ramadan (#12) - Winger/Midfielder - Dunajska Streda (Slovakian 1st Division)

Image via Syrian FA

Young, spiteful, passionate Syrian winger; that's Ramadan. Although the situation has not favored him to show more of his attacking bursts, there has been promising glimpses. An able dribbler, the 23-year old shows great work-rate to be available both defensively and offensively for his side. At 23, that is a trait that deserves appreciation, especially considering he has played just 8 games with the NT. Having represented Syria at U17, U19 & U23 levels, Ramadan will be keen to leave his mark on his first major international tournament.

Image via AIFF

To conclude, it is simply do-or-die. An Indian win guarantees them third place at the least, meanwhile a draw would be enough for Syria to secure third spot. Depending on the Australia v Uzbekistan result, Syria could even climb up-to 2nd if it all goes their way and it is up-to India to prove otherwise. A result is of paramount necessity, if the Blue Tigers are to prowl through this group stage of the Asian Cup.

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