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We've beaten civil war, bombs, torture and 15k-mile journey just to play at home. But we need one more miracle.. although 12m Syrians will want to kill us; CRISIS-HIT COUNTRY'S FOOTBALL TEAM ON BRINK OF A BITTER-SWEET DREAM; Backed by a tyrant.. but divided nation's players keep World Cup hopes alive.

Byline: Brian McIver

They haven't played a home game in seven years because they come fromthemost dangerous place on Earth.

Their once-proud homeland has been wrecked by a catastrophic civil war and a bloody battle still rages there for the IS-controlled city of Raqqa.

But, against all the odds, the national football team of Syria stands on the brink of qualifying for a World Cup Finals for the first time in the history of the tournament.

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, like any national team boss, has to cope with injuries and loss of form in players.

But the challenges faced by the Syrian side are in a different league entirely.

They have had to overcome setbacks such as players dying in combat, a badly shelled federation office and making 15,000-mile round trips to Malaysia for home fixtures.

Despite it all, their 2-2 draw with Iran last week earned them a play-off place against Asian qualifying sector favourites Australia - whose side includes Celtic star Tom Rogic - as they bid to get to the World Cup in Russia next year.

That 93rd-minute equalising strike by Omar al-Somah had commentary teams in tears, while supporters showed their joy in wild celebrations.

One of two major obstacles which remain in their path are a Socceroos side full of millionaire stars, many of whom are veterans of previous World Cups and the Champions League.

Some Syrian players struggle onintheirhomeland'scrumbling domestic league, despite the civil war between President Bashar al-Assad's army and the opposition rebels, as well as the presence of IS fanatics.

Others ply their trade in leagues in the Maldives, Iraq and Qatar, with one in the Chinese league.

Such is the division in the country that the football team is far from a unifying force.

Players supportive of the rebels have found loyalties split by the backing Assad has given to those flying the national flag on the pitch.

Giant screens were erected around the capital of Damascus, with thousands of people flooding the streets after the Iran match.

But not all are supportive - and millions aren't able to join in.

Since the civil war began in 2011, following the abortive Arab Spring, 11million people have been forced to flee their homes in the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

Assad's regime, blamed for atrocities such as mass executions and chemical weapons attacks on the opposition, has been subject to crushing economic sanctions.

But despite the gradual crumbling of the nation's infrastructure as fighting rages across the country, football has managed to continue. Crowds in domestic matches are tiny due to security fears, with matches only continuing in government-held regions.

Striker Youssef Suleiman was killed by a mortar, aged just 19, as he prepared for a match in Damascus in 2013.

Reports claim 38 footballers from the top two leagues have died in the fighting.

Former national captain Jihad Qassab, 41, had protested against the Assad regime and was tortured to death in custody last year.

The results we had now are a The star player of the Syrian league is top scorer Osama Omari, striker with Al-Wahda in Damascus, who is playing while on his national military service having been conscripted.

Most established players have left or fled the country. The national team are forced to play outside of Syria miracle because of economic sanctions and political fallout, which also means there are few other nations willing to host them.

But they eventually found a home from home in the Malaysian region of Malacca, which is an eight-hour flight from Syria.

During the arduous campaign, the players have already come through two groups - first getting past Cambodia, Singapore and Afghanistan to qualify from stage one along with Japan.

Last week, they finished third in a tough stage two group - behind Iran and South Korea - knocking out China and earning the play-off place.

have until The dramatic late goal against the Iranians was one of four crucial stoppage-time goals in their last five games.

They play Australia next month in Malacca and Melbourne.

And if they overcome the Socceroos, they face a final play-off against a side from the Central and North America region to make it to the finals.

The side are coached by Ayman Hakeem, who said: "Those results we made until now are a miracle, because of the very bad circumstances we are living in.

"What we did until now is a proof of the high spirit our players have.

"After the next game, we will know more if we are going to make the miracle and arrive to World Cup."

Whatever happens, the famed ability of the "beautiful game" to bring people together is unlikely to take hold in Syria.

Two star players recently returned after an absence due to their support for the rebels.

Striker Omar-al Soma, who was once on trial at Nottingham Forest and now plays for Saudi side Al-Ahli, once waved the opposition flag during a game in Kuwait, while fellow forward Firas al-Khatib was also a staunch supporter.

He said: "Every day before I sleep, maybe one hour, two hours, I just think about this decision. Whatever happens, 12million Syrians will love me. Another 12 million Syrians will want to kill me."

The results we have had until now are a miracle

CAPTION(S):

BRUTAL Assad, and, left, his troops shell rebels in Damascus

it's all kicked off Players, far left and main pic, celebrate Iran draw. Left, fans in Damascus

killed Qassab
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Sep 10, 2017
Words:910
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