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A Syrian rebel plays football in the Saif al-Dawlah neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. The United Nations estimated Wednesday that more than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria's 21-month-old uprising against authoritarian rule, a toll one-third higher than what anti-regime activists had counted. The U.N. human rights chief called the toll "truly shocking." (AP Photo/Andoni Lubacki)
AP Photo/Andoni Lubacki
You wouldn’t want to tackle him.
THE EAGLES OF QASIOUN

The best underdog story in sport is happening now as Syria tries it make to the World Cup

Kabir Chibber
By Kabir Chibber

Journalist

There are not many feel-good stories at the moment in Syria, which is in its sixth year of civil war. Here’s one.

The Syrian national soccer team has somehow made it to the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup to be held next year in Russia. It will play Australia twice in a week, starting today (Oct. 5), to determine whether it makes it to the next stage. The Eagles of Qasioun, ranked 75th in the world, made it this far by beating China, a country with more than 50 times its population, and then managing a draw against regional rival Iran with a goal in the 90th minute.

The scorer of the goal, Omar al-Somah, had returned after a five-year absence to the team associated as much with the Assad government as with nebulous notions of national unity. Another striker, Firas al-Khatib, also rejoined the national team, but refused to say why he was back—or whether he was forced to return. “What happened is very complicated but I can’t talk more about these things,” he said. “Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that.”

Regardless of what the team actually symbolizes, no one expected Syria to make it this far, let alone be four games from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in its history. Because of the war, Syria plays its home matches in the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia, 14,000 miles from Damascus. Australia is ranked 25 places higher.

If Syria wins the two games, it could get interesting. The winner would face the fourth-best team in North and Central America in another two-legged playoff, and the winner of that would qualify for the World Cup. Currently, the US is in fourth place. A reminder: The US has fairly recently bombed Syria (paywall) and the Trump administration bans all Syrians from traveling to the country. But why should that get in the way of sport?

Update (12:58pm ET): Syria’s dreams remain alive after a 1-1 draw in the first leg. 

How to watch the Syria vs. Australia games

The first leg takes place on Oct. 5 in Malacca at 8:30pm Malaysian time/1:30pm London time/8:30am New York time.

In the US, you can watch the match live on ESPN3. In Australia, it will be live on Fox Sports 501. In the Middle East and many, many other places, you can watch online through BeIn Sports.

The second leg takes place on Oct. 10 in Sydney at 8pm Australian time/11am London time/6am New York time.

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