Croatia outshining their 1998 golden generation. Egypt making just a second-ever finals and first in almost 30 years. England casting years of shame and embarrassment aside with one of their most inexperienced and youngest teams. Hopeless Russia providing a nation with plenty of it for the future.
These were the best feel-good stories of this summer’s World Cup. The most epic tale, however, never quite got to be told.
Syria, torn apart by an intense civil war since 2011. Yet despite all the unrest and bloodshed, their national team were a whisker away from making a maiden World Cup this summer.
The Qasioun Eagles had their wings clipped by Australia in Asian qualifying, making a resplendent run to the latter stages before they lost 3-2 in the play-offs to the shaky-looking Socceroos, who nevertheless somehow won the on-field battle to earn a spot in Russia.
But the Eagles won’t remain flightless for long. Next January Syria will surely soar when they feature at the 2019 Asian Cup – where their heartbreaking yet heroic, and rather quite brilliant story, will finally be read by the masses.
It’s a story Syria boss Bernd Stange hopes is far from over either.
“It should be a great challenge but we cannot underestimate any team in qualification,” Stange, the experienced German coach, said.
Syria line-up in Group B in the UAE in January alongside reigning champions Australia, as well as Palestine, who featured for the first time Down Under in 2015. Jordan make up the quartet.
“Palestine are a good team, we are a good team, Australia are a good team and then maybe you believe Jordan is an underdog. But they aren’t. You have Palestine first up and you have to be ready for the Asian Cup. That’s why nobody is afraid but we respect all the teams. We will be ready on January 5.”
Led by the reigning Asian Player of the Year Omar Khrbin – already familiar with UAE audiences having risen to prominence in the Emirates with Al Dhafra during a 2016-17 spell – Stange is rightly confident.
“Honestly I believe Syria should make the next stage after the group,” said Stange, speaking in Dubai at the draw for the competition back in May.
“We go step by step. Circumstances are not easy for us, even in the preparation stage. We have to make the group stage and we should be strong enough. Players are strong enough and want to achieve something. We will see, if we make it past the group stage I think everything can happen.”
It takes a special and mentally strong person to want to take a job like Stange’s. The 70-year-old had coached in comfort for the most part of his career, taking charge of East Germany’s Under-21s, Olympic and finally the senior team in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s before reunification in 1990.
He then moved on to Germany’s top-flight with Hertha Berlin, before coaching stints in Ukraine and Australia. He wondered even more off the beaten path, briefly, when he was named the head coach of the Oman national team in 2001. A year later he got really adventurous, taking the Iraq job.
Amid threats from United States President George W Bush of a possible military conflict with the country, Stange arrived in Baghdad in October 2002 and put pen to paper on a four-year contract that included a clause allowing him to leave in the event of war.
US military forces invaded in 2003 but Stange stayed put. From bullets being fired at his bodyguard to witnessing sites of suspected chemical attacks, he’s clearly not a man who chases an easy life, or runs from a difficult one.
He signed a contract to take over Syria in January this year. He lives in the capital Damascus despite being aware of the reported 400,000 people that have been killed or reported missing over seven years of war.
What makes a man want to continue to work in these sorts of environments, where there is such risk?
“People are hungry to see football,” Stange says, simply.
“It was similar in Iraq and maybe it was tougher there after the war. It was very dangerous, with hostages and all the other things.
“I’ve been in Basra for a tournament with Qatar and Iran with capacity crowds, 65,000, in the stadium. But if you see how those people need football. A 15-year boycott and now they are happy to be in Karbala or Basra, and that’s a motivation for me.
“It’s a challenge to do similar things with the Syrian team, that’s my goal. Now I am focused to do my job in Syria and I’m not afraid because if you are afraid you cannot go to an airport in Europe, you cannot go to a Christmas market, you cannot go to a coffee shop in Paris, it’s everywhere.
“I hope the world will be quiet and we can play football and make people happy.”
Pushed on why he took the Syria job rather than ease more gently towards retirement, he adds: “I had easy jobs, with Perth Glory in Australia. It’s easier to coach such a team or in Germany or Belarus.
“I thought I would finish my job (after the failed World Cup qualification) but they are so kind these people, and so full of hope after our campaign. We met each other and with the players, I feel there’s a very good atmosphere and that’s why I’ve signed this contract until January.”
Bert van Marwijk qualified fellow Asian Cup opponents Saudi Arabia for this summer’s World Cup. But he didn’t get the chance to take them to Russia as he was sacked during contract extension discussions – although he did end up going, coincidentally in charge of the Socceroos.
The Dutchman attracted criticism for his reluctance to relocate to the country during his two years in charge. That is not an issue for Stange though who happily resides in the Syrian capital.
“For me, I’m like a Syrian. I’m living with them, I do my job in Damascus,” he said.
“It’s not easy right now as you know and very difficult to plan the future under circumstances of war. It’s now seven years that nothing goes normal and it’s not easy. But I try to do my job.”
He also reserves plenty of praise for the players, who have forged successful paths outside their homeland. Although they must do so knowing the dangers their families deal with on a day to day basis back home.
He is proud of their commitment, saying: “You know these are Syrians who left their country, but their families are still there. Asian player of the year Omar Khrbin, Omar Osama are all coming back for Ramadan to see their families and they are committed. They are Syrians.
“I felt similar things when I visited players in Europe, in Germany, in Holland, in Sweden, in Italy, they are all Syrians, they want to show they want to play for their home country.”
Stange was hired as Iraq coach after the country’s football authorities were impressed by him earning a 1-0 victory over them with Oman.
And the German feels his impressive handling of the Lions of Mesopotamia was what led to Syrian football officials approaching him.
“I think they approached me to coach Syria because of this experience which I made in Iraq before and after the war,” he added.
“To be quiet under difficult circumstances, to show leadership, to show them a way to make international contacts, to arrange training, good matches. That’s maybe why they approached me.
“I’m quite happy to now, everything is on track and that’s why I think we are not a dark horse for this tournament. I think we can achieve something.”
Syria’s is a story already worth reading, but Stange feels he and his current squad can add a few more chapters come January.
Iraqi football officials are confident that the ex-Manchester City and Lazio coach will sign up to lead the Lions of Mesopotamia, according to reports.
The 70-year-old Swede met with representatives of the Iraq Football Association in Istanbul this week and Reuters cites a federation source as saying Eriksson had agreed to take charge of the team. The source said the matter would be discussed further by the federation on Monday.
Sources close to Eriksson, however, told Reuters that the vastly experienced coach had yet to make a decision on whether to accept the offer.
Iraq are due to play in next year’s Asian Cup finals, 12 years after claiming their sole continental title, beating three-time champions Saudi Arabia in the Jakarta final in 2007.
They have been drawn with Iran, Vietnam and Yemen in the group phase of the tournament, which will kick off in the Emirates on January 5, 2019.
If Eriksson is to lead the Lions into battle, he will face Vietnam in the Group D opener at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 8, before heading to Sharjah to take on Yemen four days later, with a likely table-topping clash against Iran taking place at Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium on January 16.
Eriksson, who led England to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 and 2006, has not coached at international level since working with the Ivory Coast at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The veteran manager has been in China since 2013, with his most recent role in the country’s second division when he spent half a season with Shenzhen FC. He also had stints with Chinese Super League giants Guangzhou R&F and Shanghai SIPG.
Prior to working with England, Eriksson won league titles in Sweden, Portugal and Italy.
The Asian Cup has been described as the “jewel in the crown of Asian football” by organisers of the 2019 tournament, which kicks off in the UAE in January.
Next year’s tournament, the 17th edition of the Asian Cup, will kick off on January 5 at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium when the hosts take on Gulf neighbours Bahrain in the opening game.
It concludes with the final, also at the same venue, on February 1. The Whites will hope to feature in that game, just like they did the last and only time the tournament was hosted in the Emirates, 22 years ago.
On that occasion, the UAE lost 4-2 on penalties to rivals Saudi Arabia, who won their third crown. Next year’s hosts await their first title, but their case won’t be made easier by the fact the country will host the biggest ever edition of the Asian Cup, with 24 teams competing – an upgrade of eight from the 16 nations who have featured at the last four tournaments.
Tickets go on sale on Monday, with eight stadiums across four UAE cities – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Ain and Sharjah – hosting a mammoth total of 51 matches.
“We are really happy that we’re hosting a tournament that is huge for Asia, the most important in Asia. The Asian Cup is the jewel in the crown of Asian football,” said Aref Al Awani, tournament director of the Local Organising Committee, at the ticket launch in the capital on Thursday.
“It is exciting because at the beginning when we did the bidding it was 16 teams and later it was increased to 24. So it was challenge for us, but a good challenge. And after the draw we are sure the challenge has fallen on our side.
“The UAE will be the first to have 24 teams, meaning half the continent will be here. There’s always a passion for big football tournaments. We hope our national team and the others will be ready. And we are sure they will.”
Al Awani is confident that fans will flock to each venue, thanks to the diverse and colourful cultural landscape of the UAE, with the likes of India, the Philippines, Iran, Syria and Saudi expected to draw huge crowds.
The estimated amount of Indians living in the UAE is believed to be just over 27 per cent of the approximate 9.54 million (2.62m) people that call the country home.
They outweigh the native Emirati population by around 16 per cent. Filipinos, meanwhile, are said to make up around five per cent of the population (530,000) and Iran four per cent (454,000).
For these reasons, and given the proximity to one another of the host cities, plus the fact each team will play their three group matches at different venues, Al Awani believes attendances could soar with travel between each city relatively short.
“For sure it is a big advantage,” he added. “This makes us really optimistic that we will have a high number of attendances. For example, we are talking about the large fan base of India, the Philippines, Thailand. Most of the teams that are going to be here have fans living in the UAE.
“Besides that, many are expected to come from the East, when it will be the winter break there, so we’re expecting a lot to travel during this period. We think that everything is on our side.”
Ticket prices begin at Dh25 for the group stages, with those for the final stages ranging between Dh75 and Dh300.
“Our aim was not to have that expensive tickets so to keep it within the disposal of anyone who would like to attend the matches,” added Al Awani.
“We promise everybody who is attending the tournament is going to have a good experience.”
The addition of eight more teams has also given less experienced footballing nations like India and the Philippines a chance to shine on the huge continental stage.
The Philippines and Kyrgyzstan will feature at the Asian Cup for the first time.
This will be only be India’s second appearance in the competition since 1988. Syria, Thailand and Turkmenistan will appear for the first time in 15 years, while Lebanon and Vietnam both qualified for the first time having featured previously only as hosts, in 2000 and 2007 respectively. Vietnam and Yemen, meanwhile, are both qualifying for the first time as unified nations.
Eleven teams, including the UAE, feature from the West Asian Football Federation, which excites Al Awani as it throws up several rival clashes between nations.
“Most of the derbies are Arab nations and that’s something that is different,” he added.
“We found there are a lot of derbies, so we’re waiting for very nice derbies, competitive matches.
“And there are a lot of new teams that will give a boost to the tournament. We know from hosting other sports events that these fans really love their sport. And we are hoping the same applies to the Asian Cup.”
Al Awani also believes the tournament, which will come hot on the heels of the FIFA Club World Cup in December, hosted by the UAE for the second successive year, will continue the buzz after a World Cup year.
“And as well we have Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who did an amazing job at the World Cup. Most of them were unlucky and presented a very high performance.
“So everybody now from the other teams are preparing to elevate their performance just to be equal to those teams.”