WC 2018 | ASIA
War-divided Syrians unite over football spot in Asian play-offs
Syrian government backers and rebel supporters alike roared with joy on Tuesday when Omar Al Soma scored a 93rd-minute goal, giving their national team a 2-2 draw with Iran.
The late, late goal secured a spot for Syria in the Asian play-offs towards a possible qualification for the World Cup 2018 and sparked rare celebrations at home, where a brutal six-year war has killed hundreds of thousands.
Syria has never yet qualified for the World Cup.
An upbeat mood spread from regime-held Damascus to the nearby rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta and as far as the northwestern town of Binnish in Idlib province, now largely controlled by jihadists.
"I cannot describe my happiness... I hope that peace will prevail across Syria," said Lara Hanna, 35, who watched the game in a Damascus coffee shop with her husband and their daughter.
In Eastern Ghouta, a group of football fans gathered in a farm to watch the game while others followed from home.
"Of course we wanted the national team to win," even if Syria is divided into "the opposition and the regime", said 30-year-old Abu Badr. "The team represents all of Syria and we hope they will win in the play-offs and go on to qualify for the World Cup," he said.
Both regime backers and their foes said Monday's equaliser, which placed Syria in third place in Group A, tasted like a victory.
Syrian soldier Saeed Ereiji, 34, who wore the national team's shirt over his military trousers, could hardly contain his joy.
"We are so happy with the team's performance" at the away game in Iran, he said. "Although we are allies in politics with Iran, this is football and they (Syria) gave the best they had," he added.
In the town of Binnish, Omar Hajj Hamdan, 21, watched the game with his friends in an ice cream shop.
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"We are very happy today. The draw tastes of victory," he said. "There is no link between politics and sports. It's wrong to say that we should not back the national team because it represents the regime," he said. "The national team plays for Syria, not for Bashar," he added, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many had complained online that the team represented the Assad regime, which brutally repressed peaceful anti-government protests at the start of the conflict in March 2011.
Six years on, the conflict has spiralled into a complex civil war that has killed more than 330,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
Hours before the game began, the streets in Damascus went silent, with no cars or passersby in sight.
Most stores were shuttered as football fans flooded to coffee shops and restaurants to watch the game, which state television broadcast live.
At Al-Jalaa stadium in western Damascus, more than 3,000 people gathered to celebrate, many wearing the team's red and white colours, shouting "Syria... Syria".
Hundreds more fans watched the game on a big screen in the capital's Ommayad Square, among them university student Amjad al-Hariri.
"The most beautiful thing is to see Syria united and doing well," he said
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