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AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Syria and its football culture

Published at :February 4, 2024 at 5:29 PM
Modified at :February 4, 2024 at 5:29 PM
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(Courtesy : AFC Media)

Dipro Mukherjee

Syria made their maiden appearance in the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup a few days back.

Syria’s fairy-tale stint at the ongoing edition of the AFC Asian Cup ended after they lost their Round of 16 tie against the Asian behemoth Iran on penalties.

Even though the Qaisoun Eagles couldn’t make it past the Round of 16, the underdogs have given a testament of their tactical acumen in the tournament throughout. They finished third in Group B with four points from three games which entailed a draw with Uzbekistan, a loss against the favourites Australia, and a win against India.

This article delves deeply into the dominant football culture in Syria, a nation where geopolitics is at play, and explains how they came to weave this fantastic tale.

Domestic Football

At present, Syria holds the #14 position in Asia and the #91th rank globally. Only two tiers make up the pyramid of the domestic football league that prevails in Syria – the First Division League and the Syrian Premier League. The Syrian Premier League is the premier football league in the country. However, the Syrian First Division serves as the second-division competition in the system.

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Syria and its football culture

The Syrian Premier League is competed by 12 teams. At the end of every season, the last two teams get relegated to the Syrian First Division League. Al-Fotuwa are the current champions of the Syrian Premier League who clinched their third title during the 2022-23 season. On the contrary, the top two teams from the Syrian First Division get promoted to the Syrian Premier League. Unlike the Syrian Premier League, which is competed by only 12 teams, the Syrian First Division is contested by a stupefying 39 teams.

The Syrian Premier League season kicks off in August and goes on till May, next year. Though the roster size varies from one team to the other, every team can register a maximum of 23 players, as per the norms. The Syrian top-flight stands at #164 in global rankings and #20 in Asia. Other than the league pyramid, a premier knockout tournament is also hosted by the Federation, namely the Syrian Cup. This tournament is held annually.

The current champions are Tishreen, who clinched their maiden title last season. Al-Ittihad stands out as the most successful club in this tournament with 10 titles to date. The Syrian Super Cup has got the FA Community Shield module. This match is contested between the champions of the Syrian Premier League and the winners of the Syrian Cup.

The first official Syrian women’s football championship, consisting of a league with seven teams, commenced in July 2006. Additionally, there is a Syria women’s national team too! However, prior to the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualification, the team had not participated in any official international matches.

Top Players in the Premier Division

Mahmoud Al Baher (Al-Fotuwa)

The 30-year-old Syrian forward started his youth career at Jableh. In 2011, he moved to Jableh’s senior team. He won the Syrian Premier League with the club during the 2014-15 season. During his stint at Al-Riffa, he won both the Bahrain Premier League and the Bahrain Super Cup. During the 2020-21 and the 2022-23 seasons, he became the season’s top goal-scorer with 21 goals and 14 goals, respectively. He made his international debut in 2016 and since then has scored twice across 10 appearances.

Mohammed Al Wakid (Al-Jaish)

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Syria and its football culture Mohammed Al Wakid
Al Wakid is still playing at 38. (Courtesy: AFC)

The 38-year-old Syrian forward currently plays for Al-Jaish in the Syrian Premier League. He started his youth career with Al-Jaish. In 2004, he joined Al-Majd to kickstart his senior career. In his domestic career to date, the striker has won the Syrian Premier League thrice and the Syrian Super Cup twice with Al-Jaish.

He has also won the Syrian Premier League once with Al-Shorta during the 2011-12 season. Moreover, he also received the honour of Syrian Premier League’s top goal-scorer thrice, during the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, respectively. Mohammed Al Wakid made his international debut for Syria in a friendly against Iraq in 2019.

Top Player in Overseas

Omar Khribin (Al-Wahda FSCC)

AFC Asian Cup 2023: All you need to know about Syria and its football culture Omar Khribin
Khribin celebrating his goal against India at the AFC Asian Cup 2023. (Courtesy: AFC)

The 30-year-old plays for the Emirati club Al Wahda and the Syria national team. Early on, clubs abroad noticed his talent, and at the age of 18, he left his homeland to pursue a club career that would take him to four different countries in the region. He kickstarted his journey at the Air Force Club in Iraq in 2013 and went on to have a highly successful stint at Al Dhafra in the UAE Pro League, where his goal-scoring prowess attracted the attention of Saudi powerhouse Al Hilal.

The 23-year-old was made the most expensive Syrian player of all time by Al Hilal. Possibly, the best year of his career was 2017. He made the most impact in the AFC Champions League, finishing as the top scorer with 10 goals to lead Al Hilal to the final. In the finale, Khribin scored the team’s lone goal in the doubleheader against Urawa Red Diamonds, which Al Hilal lost on aggregate. He won the 2017 AFC Player of the Year award, becoming the first and so far, the only Syrian to do so. He defeated Omar Abdulrahman of the UAE and Wu Lei of China PR for the accolade.

Youth Football

The Syrian Youth League is organized by the Syria Arab Football Federation in addition to the youth teams for the national camp and their domestic pyramid.

Teams from different parts of Syria compete in the tournament, representing their cities or clubs. These teams are made up of gifted football players, aged between 16 to 21, who are motivated to establish themselves in the sport.

The Syria Youth League is renowned for its fierce rivalry and competitive games. To guarantee that only the best players are selected to represent their clubs, the participating teams go through a rigorous selection process. As a result, spectators can expect exciting matches and a tournament full of elite talent.

The competition is organized like a league, with teams playing each another in a round-robin format. Every team participates in multiple games against various opponents, earning points according to their performance. The knockout stages, where the intensity and excitement reach newer heights, comprise the top teams with the most points after the league stage.

The Syria Youth League gives young athletes a pedestal to display their abilities and the same acts as a springboard for their future professional careers. Clubs and national teams frequently send scouts and talent agents to the tournament to watch the up-and-coming talent.

Future of Football

“Bright future” will be an understatement when it comes to the Qaisoun Eagles’ future. It is evident from their display of tactical prowess at the AFC Asian Cup 2023. If they can keep up this growth rate, they have the potential to be the next big thing in Asian football. The days of seeing more players take center stage at the international level, like Omar Khribin, Mahmoud Al Baker, and Mohammed Al Wakid, among others, are not far off thanks to the grassroots structure that is skilled in developing young talents.

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