SYDNEY (AP) — While local support will be firmly behind Australia’s Socceroos, wider sentiment may spur the team from war-torn Syria to keep its World Cup dream alive when the teams meet Tuesday in a winner-takes-all qualifier.
The outcome of the match will decide which team progresses to an inter-continental playoff against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF — the North and Central American and Caribbean confederation — for a spot at the World Cup in Russia next year.
Syria kept its hopes alive with a late penalty which allowed it to snatch a 1-1 draw with Australia in its “home” leg of the two-leg playoff on neutral in Malaysia last week. But it now must overcome Australia’s home advantage to continue to lift the spirits of fans in a country riven by war.
Syria coach Aymin Al-Hakim said playing Australia in Sydney was just another of the obstacles his team has had to overcome in its astonishing qualifying campaign.
“I say to our fans what we have achieved so far is not only an achievement, but a miracle,” he said. “We will push with all our force to continue our journey on the path of achieving our dream.”
His team has nothing to lose. Syria has never qualified for the World Cup, but now is potentially only three games from making it to soccer’s grandest show.
Syria left back Mouaiad Al Ajjan said his team would have to make the most of its chances in Sydney, particularly after a slow first half in Malacca, Malaysia last week and needing an 85th-minute penalty to equalize.
“We are content with the result,” he said after the draw, “but we promise the fans we will up our game in the second leg to bring them joy and qualify to the inter-confederation playoff.”
Australia has qualified for the last three World Cups and narrowly missed a direct spot again, finishing just out of the top two in its group on goal difference. That pushed the Socceroos into the difficult playoff route to Russia, a pathway they were more familiar with when Australia was part of the Oceania confederation.
Tuesday’s match will be played on the ground where Australia beat Uruguay in an intercontinental playoff to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and where it won the Asian Cup in 2015. Home fans will clamor for an Australian victory which will propel the Socceroos a step closer to Russia.
But there will be additional tension as defeat will spell not only the end of the Socceroos’ World Cup ambitions but possibly coach Ange Postecoglou’s tenure with the national team. Postecoglou acknowledged that possibility but said he wouldn’t allow it to rule his approach to the match.
“I’d be a fool if I didn’t I live the way I preach,” Postecoglou said. “I try to live every game like it’s the last one.
“I won’t be going into it with a different mindset because it’s an absolute privilege and honor to coach your country.”
Postecoglou said he was looking for nothing less than a win on Tuesday.
“For us the objective is clear,” he said. “What we know is if we win tomorrow night we’ll be through to the next round. Our objective is to play our football. We want to be aggressive, attacking, take it to the opposition and test them and that’s what we’ll do.”
Postecoglou will likely recall Celtic midfielder Tom Rogic for the match and has hinted he might start veteran Tim Cahill.
Mark Milligan, who led the Australia lineup last week, said the players’ confidence is “very strong.”
“Looking back on Thursday night … our shortcomings in the last 30 minutes showed when we do things right, we get the right results for it,” he said. “If any doubt does creep in we’re fortunate we can look at recent performances and we’re right on track.
“We’ll hold strong in what we believe and bring our best to the table.”