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Footballers striving to bring joy to wartorn Syria

October 14, 2013

SINGAPORE (AP) — For Anas Makhlouf and his Syrian team, even the so-called home games in the Asian Cup qualifying campaign are played a long way from the fans who desperately want them to win so they’ve got something to celebrate amid a bloody civil war.

The Syria national team coach gets his team of mostly foreign-based professionals together for a few days around sanctioned international dates for football, and really can only hope they can compete fueled by emotion.

“Everyone knows about our bad situation but we try to do something for our people over there to help them to be in a good situation,” Makhlouf said. “The Syrian people, they love football and they are looking for a good team and a good result and that’s why we have to do this for them.”

This week they’re in Singapore, preparing for an Asian Cup group match. They’ve got one point from two matches and are in third place in Group A, just ahead of Singapore and well behind Oman and Jordan. They’re playing their next two home games in Oman and Iran. Still, the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia is on the radar.

Makhlouf knows three points in Singapore on Tuesday will be crucial to get the qualifying campaign back on track and bring some joy to the people of Syria amid a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million Syrians to flee the country and caused untold suffering — psychological, emotional and physical — across the nation.

“The players are aware of the fans feelings, our fans who are following us through the internet or live communications, we know how much our supporters are waiting to feel happy especially that tomorrow is the Eid day,” Makhlouf said Monday. “We wish them, we wish our Syrian people all the best and peace.

“I hope tomorrow we will give them a small present on this occasion.”

The Syrian squad assembles in Beirut for training camps, bringing professional players from across the region and a few from Damascus.

“We can only have the players on FIFA days for short camps of two or three days and this doesn’t help working on the coherence of the team but we hope this doesn’t affect them because most of the players have been playing together for a while,” Makhlouf said.

Singapore coach Bernd Stange knows from experience the kind of challenges that Makhlouf faces preparing a team for an international tournament. He coached the Iraq national team from 2002-04.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, “there was nothing left — not footballs, no equipment. It was very difficult,” Stange said. “We couldn’t play any matches in Iraq.”

“But the players are very, very motivated to play for their country, to show the people who suffer at home under very difficult circumstances that, ‘We are here, we want to deliver something.’ And it was very dangerous to play against Iraq. Even in this difficult time, (Iraq) had their most successful period.”

Iraq produced some stunning upsets to win the 2007 Asian Cup, including a group-stage win over an Australian team playing in the continental tournament only a year after a narrow loss to eventual champion Italy in the second round of the World Cup.

Syria captain Sanhareb Malki said it would give the Syrian people a significant boost if his team could achieve anything near that.

“It would give happiness to the people on this tragic period for us, for the moment,” Malki said. “It’s like Iraq ... we need to try to do the same.

“Everyone in Syria loves football — they follow us on Facebook, Twitter, on this kind of things. They try to send us messages to encourage our team, because we can’t play at home. For these kinds of people we need to give everything and we will fight.”

Update hourly