Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium, Qatar – What do you get when you take two football-mad countries, pit them against each other in a compact stadium and put a championship knockout berth on the line?
Iran vs Syria at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium on Wednesday night – fighting for the last remaining quarterfinal spot in the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
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Iran emerged the winner after a penalty shootout was needed to separate the teams following a 1-1 result at the end of extra time.
It was an end-to-end contest that captivated the spectators for more than two hours and the underdog’s fight that Syria showed.
Iran started the game as favourites on many counts.
Higher ranking: Iran are second in Asia and 21st in the world in FIFA’s men’s rankings, compared with Syria’s 91st position in the world and 13th in Asia.
Past glory: Iran have won the Asian Cup three times – although the last time they triumphed was 48 years ago – while Syria had never previously gone past the group stage.
Tournament run: Iran topped their group with three wins and a goal difference of five. Syria snuck into the knockouts as one of the four best third-place teams on the back of a 1-0 win over hapless India and a goalless draw with Uzbekistan.
And finally, reputation: Iran were one of the title contenders alongside the likes of Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Syria were rated as one of the teams that would do wonders by qualifying for the knockouts.
Their progress thrilled Syrian fans as it gave them a chance to see their team in action one more time, especially at a stadium that kept them very close to the action. Both sets of fans loved every minute of the action.
The intensity of the on-field action was closely matched by the singing and chanting off it.
The 10,000-capacity venue was evenly packed with supporters of both teams. They came prepared with drums, trumpets, flags of various sizes and powerful vocal cords. Once the action was under way, each wave of attack on the pitch was matched by a crescendo of noise off it.
Iran took the lead when their star forward Mehdi Taremi converted a penalty in the 34th minute, but Syria kept mounting pressure on the Iranian goal.
Their efforts paid off when they were awarded a penalty in the second half and Omar Khribin stepped up to convert it and send Syria’s fans into dreamland.
And when Taremi was sent off in injury time, Syria felt the one-man advantage could help them sneak a winner.
But somehow Iran managed to fend off the Syrian attacks, which Team Melli’s coach Amir Ghalenoei credited to a “compact and disciplined performance” in his post-match comments.
In the end, what separated them on the field after more than two hours of action was one saved penalty kick.
When Ehsan Hajsafi successfully converted Iran’s last penalty to make it 5-3 in the shootout, Syrian players dropped to the ground in disbelief. In the stands, their fans wore a look of shock. Children with their faces painted with the Syrian flags sobbed but some fans, like Adnan Yazbek, said they were immensely proud of the team.
“Our team defied expectations to come this far and give Iran such a fight, so I’m heartbroken but I have a smile on my face because they made me feel proud of being Syrian,” Yazbek told Al Jazeera.
Mohammed Abdullah, a Syrian fan, said the team has overcome many off-field challenges due to the ongoing war in the country and consequential complications.
“Football is loved by everyone in Syria and this team is loved by all Syrians around the world,” Abdullah said.
“Me and my little sister are heartbroken, but this is football and as long as we know our players gave everything, we are going to continue supporting them.”
The Syrian team and their travelling fans return home to shift their focus on the 2026 World Cup qualification.
Meanwhile, Iran face the Samurai Blue in an afternoon kickoff in the third quarterfinal on Saturday.