KUWAIT CITY, Oct 4, 2017 (BSS/AFP) – Firas al-Khatib never imagined he would abandon Syria’s national colours for years only to return in search of World Cup glory for his war-battered country.
The striker from the central city of Homs, regarded as a cradle of the Syrian conflict that broke out in 2011, announced in July of the following year he would not don the national team’s colours until the guns fell silent.
This year, Khatib, now 34, who plays his club football in Kuwait for Al-Salmiya, has made his return despite the conflict, which has cost more than 330,000 lives, showing no sign of ending.
Without going into too much detail about his change of heart, Khatib told AFP he wants “to give the Syrian people some joy after a long, difficult period”.
“All Syrians would be happy if we qualify for the World Cup” finals being hosted by Russia next year, he said. “If the country is calling us, we must respond to that call.”
But qualification is still a long shot, with two legs of Asian play-offs to come against highly-fancied Australia this month.
The winner of that showdown will still have to take on a team from the CONCACAF region in home and away matches in November to finally seal qualification.
– Dream still alive –
September 5 was a day of joy for Syrians across the board, from supporters of President Bashar al-Assad to his sworn foes, when their team snatched a place in the play-offs with a dramatic 2-2 draw away to Iran.
Omar al-Soma is another Syrian international who plays in the Gulf, for Al-Ahly in Saudi Arabia, and who had deserted the team, probably because of his support for the opposition.
It was Soma’s last-gasp equaliser in Tehran that kept alive Syria’s dream of a first appearance at the most prestigious tournament in football.
“For my part, I hope to be able to bring something to the team with my experience,” said Khatib, who is taking part in his fifth qualification campaign.
His international career dates back to 2002, scoring 29 goals in 73 appearances since. He has played for clubs in Iraq, Qatar and China as well as Kuwait.
Apart from a thunderbolt shot, being a good header of the ball and able to play with both feet, Khatib’s main asset is his influence on teammates.
“It’s above all psychological: he’s forever encouraging teammates, in training and during matches,” says his coach at Al-Salmiya, Abdel Aziz Hamadeh.
Mohammed Jragh, a former teammate in Kuwait, said he was “a leader in every sense of the word”.
Ahead of the clashes with Australia, Khatib is keeping a calm head.
“The Australians have more experience than us… but that doesn’t mean that it’s done and dusted,” he said.
Because of the war, Syria hav been playing their “home” matches in Malaysia, where Khatib’s men will face the Socceroos on Thursday before the second leg in Sydney on October 10.