Syria beats China in World Cup qualifier
China's first home World Cup loss since 2011
Syria's first win of Asian qualifying round three
Their goal is to “put a smile on Syrian faces.”
The country has been ravaged by a five-year civil war, but its footballers are doing their best to inspire hope.
The “Qasioun Eagles” kickstarted their bid to qualify for the World Cup for the first time with a surprise victory away to China on Thursday.
Mahmoud Al-Mawas’ second-half goal secured a 1-0 victory in Xi’an – Syria’s first win of round three in Asian qualifying for the 2018 tournament in Russia.
The 23-year-old latched onto Ahmad Al Salih’s pass to round the goalkeeper and roll the ball into an empty net nine minutes after the interval, as China slipped to its first World Cup qualifying defeat on home soil since 2011.
Syria’s players ran over to the corner flag and sunk to their knees in joy and prayer, as the goal silenced the home crowd in the 50,000-capacity stadium.
With a population of 1.3 billion, China is considered one of Asian football’s sleeping giants and has ambitions of one day hosting and winning a World Cup.
Syria, on the other hand, has been decimated by conflict that has displaced more than 6 million people and made almost 5 million more seek refuge outside its borders.
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According to a UK-based monitoring group, 3,800 civilians – almost a quarter of them children – have been killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria in the year since Russia began its air campaign there. CNN cannot independently confirm the figures.
Due to the fighting, Syria’s national team plays its home matches in Oman.
Syria now sits fourth in Group A, three points off the top after three games out of 10.
The top two teams in the two Asian groups qualify for Russia 2018, while the third-placed sides will compete to decide who enters the final World Cup playoff against a nation from the CONCACAF region – which covers North and Central America, and the Caribbean.
In Thursday’s other Group A games, South Korea beat Qatar 3-2 while Iran inflicted Uzbekistan’s first defeat to also move onto seven points.
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Before qualifying began, Syria’s young star Omar Kharbin talked about the challenges of playing football in the midst of the Middle East conflict.
“Our goal is to put a smile on Syrian faces,” he told FIFA’s website. “We want to bring some pleasure to our compatriots, despite their current circumstances. That’s what motivates us to play for the national team, even with all the obstacles.
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“We always think about our supporters and hope we can qualify so we can bring a little joy to them, after all the hurt they’ve experienced.”