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The West Asian nation may be experiencing all sorts of problems at present, but its Under-23 football team has defied the odds and could qualify for London 2012 on Wednesday

COMMENT
By Justin Salhani in Amman

A well-circulated story in the world of international football is that of Cote d'Ivoire circa 2006. The fighting of the Civil War had mostly ended in 2004 but the country's tensions perpetuated despite the United Nations and the French military's best efforts. All the while there were a group of Ivorians carrying on under a united cause. This group was the Cote d'Ivoire men's national football team, who had just qualified for their first ever World Cup finals in Germany.

Widely credited with bringing together warring factions, albeit temporarily, to stop fighting, the story goes that captain Didier Drogba went on national television and appealed for a united country to support the Elephants at the biggest sporting event on the face of the Earth.

While this is just one of many stories of football bringing people together, this effect may not be the case for the Syrian Under-23/Olympic team in their upcoming match with Malaysia on Wednesday. Syria currently sit second in their group, just three points behind Japan, who will host third-placed Bahrain the same day.

Japan also boast a higher goal differential over Syria, while Bahrain are coached by Peter Taylor, the same man who recently led the senior team to a 10-0 win over Indonesia in World Cup qualifying. Bahrain's recent form has also been noteworthy, with a 2-1 win over the Syrians in Manama on February 22, just 17 days after Syria themselves beat Japan 2-1 in Amman.

"Malaysia have lost five games from five so far, and should Syria win and Japan lose the Syrians have a shout of automatic qualification for the 2012 Olympic games in London"

Malaysia have lost five games from five so far, and should Syria win and Japan lose (though Japan currently have a +5 goal differential) the Syrians have a shout of automatic qualification for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

A second place finish will still give the Red Eagles a chance at competing in London, placing them in a three-team tournament in Vietnam at the end of March. The winner will face Senegal in a play-off in Coventry for that coveted final spot.

The recent events in Syria have forced the squad to adopt the King Abdullah Stadium in their neighbouring country of Jordan as their home venue. The regime has cracked down on dissenters, including former goalkeeper Abdul-Baset Saroot, who left the squad to help fight with the opposition to Bashar al-Assad's administration.

Saroot has been quoted as saying, "I'm free. I've travelled all over the world to play football. But freedom is not just about me or about travelling. What about everyone else? Freedom is a big word."

While history has countless tales of football allowing countries to set aside their differences and get behind their national team, it's hard to envision the nation uniting while Syria is ensnared in such a bloody internal conflict.

Despite the circumstances, the show must go on and an impressive Syria team have a lot to play for.

"It's always difficult when your country has problems but it also makes you more determined. Syria want to qualify and they have a chance"


- Malaysia U23 coach Ong Kim Swee

Malaysian U-23 coach Ong Kim Swee told Goal.com that he doesn't see the political issues distracting the Syrian squad. He said: "It's always difficult when your country has problems but it also makes you more determined. They want to qualify and they have a chance."

The Malaysian coach also took the time to emphasise the quality of Haitham Jatal's boys. He said: "They're a very good team and they beat Japan, which you cannot call luck."

On his own team's accomplishments, Kim Swee remained positive. The experience so far has been invaluable for the young side, and the coach points to the positive reception the squad has received back in his country.

"We've got fans back in Malaysia now so we hope they keep supporting us so we can be on par with Bahrain and Syria, but we need time and development," he said.

The reception in Malaysia has certainly been a positive one thus far for their youngsters. Syria on the other hand, have been overlooked despite their incredible recent success. Some may play for the hope of emulating what the Ivorians achieved in 2006 while others may just be playing for what Saroot spoke of: freedom.

Justin Salhani is a reporter for the Beirut Daily Star and is Vintage Futbol's correspondent in the Middle East. Follow him on @JustinSalhani.

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