With war at home, Syria beat Afghanistan 6-0

The China Post - - SPORTS - BY ARTHUR MACMIL­LAN

To out­siders this was a 2018 World Cup qual­i­fier. To fans of Afghanistan and Syria who watched it live, how­ever, it was much more than a soc­cer match.

With both coun­tries wracked by war FIFA has barred them from host­ing home games, mak­ing na­tive sup­port­ers hard to come by in a slew of neu­tral venues and con­se­quently dulled at­mos­pheres.

But the choice of the eastern Ira­nian city of Mash­had — home to thou­sands of Afghan refugees and just three hours drive from the bor­der as Thurs­day night’s venue — en­sured there would be an au­di­ence fit for at least one team.

And so it was that hours be­fore the game, thou­sands of lo­cal Afghans filed into Sa­men Sta­dium full of hope, leav­ing mo­tor­cy­cles — cheap and ubiq­ui­tous trans­port among the es­ti­mated 3 mil­lion of their coun­try­men ex­iled in Iran — stacked up out­side. Some had trav­eled fur­ther. “I just wanted to see my team play,” Nader­shah Noorzih, a 48- year- old driver from Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest and a mainly Persian-speak­ing city, told AFP, this time tak­ing a taxi from the Ira­nian bor­der rather than tak­ing the wheel him­self as nor­mal.

But de­spite a bright start from the no­tional “home” side, Syria took the lead af­ter 19 min­utes, with striker Raja Rafe edg­ing a close range header. When he dou­bled his tally 15 min­utes later, coolly pass­ing a shot into the net, the tone was set: Syria won 6-0.

The re­sult didn’t seem to bother the Afghans — around 9,000 of whom paid be­tween 200,000 and 500,000 Ira­nian ri­als (US$6-15) to at­tend. In­stead of be­moan­ing the de­feat they chanted for their team through­out and tooted their horns just as loudly when they left the sta­dium as when they ar­rived.

‘Make Afghanistan proud’

“We proved that even with empty pock­ets and hun­gry bel­lies we can make Afghanistan proud,” said Val­imo­ham­mad Hashemi, an Afghan sports min­istry of­fi­cial and fans’ li­ai­son of­fi­cer who came to Iran when he was only one year old.

Re­flect­ing on the predica­ment of his fel­low ex­iled Afghans, he added: “We have been in Iran for 30 years and we have good and bad mem­o­ries. This game was never about the re­sult for us. It was just nice to see our team here.”

The same philo­soph­i­cal re­flec­tion did not come from Syria’s head coach Fajr Ibrahim who, blam­ing West­ern coun­tries and Gulf states for his coun­try’s trou- bles, in­sisted his team’s matches could be played safely in Syria, de­spite a civil war con­tin­u­ing to rage.

He also said his side can out­play fel­low Group E qual­i­fiers Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore and Cam­bo­dia to reach the fi­nals in Rus­sia.

“Da­m­as­cus is very safe, but de­spite this they will not let us play there. Re­gard­less, we think it is our turn to qual­ify,” he said.

Be­sides the score­line, the main thing that set the sides apart through­out the 90 min­utes were the re­spec­tive fan num­bers. While Afghanistan had just un­der 9,000 ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial at­ten­dance, Syria’s sup­port­ers could be counted by the naked eye — 9.

All came from nearby Fer­dowsi Uni­ver­sity and, buoyed by a win per­haps made just a lit­tle too flat­ter­ing by an in­jury time penalty that was duly con­verted, their loud back­ing drew ap­plause from the Syr­ian team and sup­port staff af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle.

AP

(Above) Syr­ian fans cel­e­brate af­ter their team scores dur­ing a match be­tween Afghanistan and Syria at FIFA World Cup 2018 qual­i­fiers in Mash­had, Iran on Thurs­day, June 11. (Right) Afghanistan’s Dje­laludin Shar­it­yar, cen­ter, and Syria’s Raja Rafe, right, jump and vie for the ball dur­ing their match at FIFA World Cup 2018 qual­i­fiers in Mash­had on Thurs­day.

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