DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — In the midst of a long-running and ruinous war, millions of Syrians may finally have something to be joyful about.
Syria's national soccer team has a chance to qualify for next year's World Cup — what would be the Arab nation's first ever appearance in the sport's most prestigious event. The team, referred to by many Syrians as the "Qasioun Eagles" after a mountain overlooking the capital Damascus, has been on an impressive run despite being forced to play all its games in other countries.
The Syrians beat Qatar 3-1 on Thursday in Malaysia, moving into third place in Group A of Asian qualifying. The top two finishers in the six-team group will automatically qualify for next year's tournament in Russia, while the third-place team will enter a playoff.
If the Syrians beat Iran in Tehran in their final group match on Tuesday, they will be guaranteed to finish at least third. But Syria could finish second and qualify directly depending on the result of the match between South Korea and Uzbekistan.
"Our team is ready to achieve victory and qualify Syria for the first time to the World Cup," Muwaffaq Fathallah, the chief administrator of the Syrian team, said by telephone from the Iranian capital. "We want the Syrian people to be happy."
The qualification would come as a welcome surprise for millions across the war-torn country, which has been devastated by the conflict. More than 400,000 people have been killed and half the country's prewar population displaced since the conflict erupted in March 2011. It will also be a boost for President Bashar Assad, who is eager to project strength and normalcy on the world stage while his forces continue to recapture territory on the ground.
The war has negatively impacted the country's soccer industry, the country's most popular sport. As the nation descended into conflict, sports stadiums were trashed and many of the national team's players moved to Arab or Asian countries to play.
The national team is made up of government-approved supporters, although at least one player was an opposition activist. Striker Firas al-Khatib, who was often seen attending fundraising events for the opposition during his years in exile, returned to Damascus last month for the first time in five years, receiving a VIP welcome at the airport.
"There is no better feeling than returning home," al-Khatib, who once said he would never again play for the government team until it stops its bombardment of opposition-held areas, said upon his arrival.
Another player who has been outside Syria for years but never expressed support for the opposition is Omar al-Soma, who joined the national team before the match against Qatar last week.
The team's captain, Ahmad al-Saleh, plays for Chinese club Henan Jianye, while Omar Khribin, who scored a goal in each half against Qatar, plays for Saudi Arabian team Al-Hilal. Al-Soma, who recently joined the national team, plays for Saudi club Al-Ahli.
Al-Khatib, who played for Kuwaiti team Qadsia and later Al-Arabi, will be returning to his mother club of Al-Karamah in the central city of Homs.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the national team began its training in Tehran on Saturday in preparation for Tuesday's match against Iran.
In the Syrian capital on Monday, workers were setting up giant screens in at least three squares for public viewing, while businessmen will be offering food and drinks for those planning to watch. State-run television, which is planning to broadcast the game live, has lined up special programs for the event.
The politics of Syria's run has not been lost on anyone.
For Syria to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, its chief international ally, it must defeat Iran, its regional political ally. Both countries have provided crucial political and military support to shore up Assad's forces in the war.
On social media, some predicted that Iran, which has already qualified for the tournament, may let Syria win the match based on the political closeness of the two countries.
The coach of Iran's national soccer team, Carlos Queiroz, rejected any match-fixing plans and the state-owned IRAN daily reported Monday that Iran midfielder Ashkan Dejagah said his team is determined to win Tuesday's match.
Mowaffak Joumaa, the head of Syria's Olympic committee and sports federation, told The Associated Press in Damascus that "every citizen has become a soldier in his own profession" and the soccer players are doing their best for the country.
"We are hopeful," Joumaa said, "that they will achieve a good result in the match against Iran and would bring happiness to all Syrians on Tuesday."
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Terhran, Iran, contributed to this report.