Pitch is neutral zone for Syrians chasing Olympic dream
Rui Miguel De Almeida during the press conference. Picture: Luong Thai Linh
Having secured second place in the group stages, the team face Oman on Sunday and Uzbekistan on Thursday in the last hurdle of the Asian qualifiers. The winner will go on to head-to-head with Senegal in Coventry, England in April for a place at the 2012 Olympic Games.
As members of the team mill around the lobby of their plush Hanoi hotel looking pensive, the situation at home could not be more different.
Human rights groups say a year of clashes between troops backed by President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces has left more than 9,100 people dead. Despite this, coach Rui Almeida says right now all the players are thinking about is football.
"I have to focus my mind for the play-off. I can assure you that is all the players are thinking about too because for any sportsman it is the top of your career to be in the Olympics," he told dpa.
Getting to Hanoi has been tough. Last year FIFA said the country was not safe enough to hold home games and chose Jordan as a neutral venue. A few months later Almeida, who had trained the team for a year, announced he was heading back to Portugal after his contract was not renewed.
"It was a difficult time, the board (of the Syrian Football Federation) also changed during that time," he says. "There were many things at the same time. It was a difficult moment also for the country."
In six weeks the team went through two Syrian coaches. Now Almeida has returned and he says despite their problems the players have to remain focused.
"The players have to put their problems out of their minds. You have to be in a neutral zone about these things," he says. "Everyone has feelings, of course, but on the field there is only the match."
Focusing on the task at hand is all very well, but some observers argue it is not possible to separate football and politics so easily.
One well known face among anti-government protesters is former goalkeeper Abdelbasset Saroot who joined the revolution last summer. Another goalkeeper Mosab Balhous is reported to have been arrested for helping the rebels.
James M Dorsey, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the threat of defectors is one reason why Syria did not send anyone to the Arab Games in November last year.
The government said it was boycotting the games in protest against a decision by the Arab League to suspend the country's membership. Darsey, who is also author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer says he thinks there was more to it.
"It was never expressed in those words but certainly my sense is one reason they didn't send them there was that they didn't want any defections. Obviously they feel confident enough about this team that they won't defect."
On Friday European Union foreign ministers turned up the heat on the Syrian president by extending visa bans and asset freezes to his close relatives. The move begs the question of whether international condemnation of the regime could cause problems for the team if they did win a ticket to London this summer.
Coach Almeida says he is not worried. "The only organization that can make that kind of decision hasn't said anything yet and that organization is FIFA," he says. "Syria is here because FIFA allows it and it has every right to be here."
Whatever happens, the players have already made a remarkable achievement by getting this far. No Syrian team has made it this far into the Olympic qualifying round since the 1970s.
On the eve of their match with Oman defender Yasser Shaheen says the players are feeling confident. "It's a big honour for us and Syria to be qualified for London 2012 after this long period," he told dpa. "Of course it's now or never for us because at our age we can only qualify once."
With this mantra in mind, Shaheen says the players will work hard for themselves and for the country and he feels people back at home support him. "We have a deep feeling that everyone supports us even if the stadium is empty. Deep inside we feel that everyone supports us."