MALACCA, Malaysia (AP) — Omar al-Soma left it late again for Syria, keeping the war-torn country’s World Cup hopes alive with a penalty to salvage a 1-1 draw against Australia in the first leg of the Asian playoff.
Syria scored in the 85th minute after Mathew Leckie was penalized for his aerial challenge on al-Soma, who stepped up and converted from the spot.
It was al-Soma’s late equalizer against Iran in the previous round that secured Syria’s place in the make-or-break playoff against Australia.
The Syrians, who have never before qualified for a World Cup, are facing Australia in a two-leg Asian playoff for the right to go into an intercontinental playoff. The next stage is a two-leg series against the fourth-place team from the North American region, meaning a possible showdown with the United States.
Before that, though, is the return leg of the Asian playoff in Sydney on Tuesday.
The Australians dominated the first half and led 1-0 at the break on neutral ground in Malaysia, where Syria is hosting its World Cup qualifying matches because of the ongoing conflict at home. Robbie Kruse timed his run perfectly to get a touch on Leckie’s shot and angle it past goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma in the 40th minute.
The Syrians rallied in the second half, with al-Soma and Omar Khribin creating opportunities. The tempo lifted further when veteran forward Firas Al Khatib came on in the 75th.
“I think we were a bit unlucky. I’m not sure what happened with the penalty — maybe it touched his hand? I don’t know,” Australia stand-in captain Mark Milligan said. “We’re very confident. We’ll go home and get them on a good pitch in front of our home fans.”
The Australians had other chances to score, with Milligan’s long-range shot well saved in the 19th and Leckie sending a rushed shot over the bar in the 29th.
Alma made another save in the 42nd on Aziz Behich’s curling right-foot shot. Leckie then leaped high but headed over the bar a minute before the break.
Tomi Juric hit the left post twice within a matter of seconds at the start of the second half, missing a chance to double Australia’s lead.
From then on, Syria started gaining the momentum and launching counter-attacks against a tiring Australian defense. And the small but vocal crowd in Malacca was heavily behind the underdogs.
Syria went close with free kicks in the 67th and 68th minutes — the first cleared by Behich off the line and Khribin’s deflection off the defensive wall skewing wide on the second.
A speedy burst from Khatib and a header from al-Soma forced a reflex save from Mat Ryan in the 78th and the Australia goalkeeper tipped a hard shot from Moayad Ajan over the bar in injury time to preserve the draw, only moments after Alma made a game-saving stop for Syria at the other end.
Syrians celebrated in Damascus, despite the match being staged much closer to Australia and in an almost empty stadium.
Crowds thronged to the Umayyad Square in Damascus to watch the match on a giant TV screen, waving flags and chanting for their team. Children were sent home early from school to avoid traffic jams before the broadcast.
The Australians have qualified for the last three World Cups, and were only forced into the Asian playoff after finishing behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference and narrowly missing the second qualifying spot from their group. It took a late equalizer against already-qualified Iran in Tehran for Syria to clinch a place in the playoff.
The Syrians were buoyed by their run through qualifying, with coach Ayman al-Hakim saying before the game that his squad didn’t fear any team.
The draw extended Syria’s unbeaten run at its adopted Malaysian home to seven matches.