Cinderella Syria keeps World Cup hopes alive with draw against Iran
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Cinderella Syria keeps World Cup hopes alive with draw against Iran

Goal in extra time earns war-torn country third place in Group A, setting up play-off match against Australia or Saudi Arabia

Syria's players celebrate at the end of their FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match against Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)
Syria's players celebrate at the end of their FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match against Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)

TEHRAN, Iran — Omar Al Soma’s stoppage-time equalizer extended war-torn Syria’s World Cup fairy tale on Tuesday, as South Korea booked their spot to reach the tournament for the ninth straight time.

Syria was 2-1 down against Iran and heading out, but in the third added minute Mardek Mardkian slid a pass to Al Soma, who finished through goalkeeper Alireza Salimi’s legs.

The 2-2 draw was enough to give Syria third place in Group A and a spot in the Asian play-offs against either Australia or Saudi Arabia, who face Japan later in Group B.

Supporters of Syria celebrate at the end of the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iran and Syria at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)

Syria’s heroics also extinguished China’s faint hopes of reaching only their second World Cup, despite snatching a 2-1 win over 2022 hosts Qatar thanks to Wu Lei’s late winner.

Earlier in Group B, Australia won 2-1 against Thailand but they will be knocked out of the second automatic qualifying spot if Saudi Arabia beat Japan in the evening’s late kick-off in Jeddah.

The United Arab Emirates also saw their dream die when they lost 1-0 to Iraq to finish fourth in Group B.

But there was jubilation in Tehran as Syria, who have been playing home games in Malaysia to avoid the civil war raging in their country, continued to defy the odds.

Syria’s goals from Tamer Mohamad and Al Soma were the first conceded in the final round by already qualified Iran, who were playing in their fortress Azadi Stadium.

Iran’s Ehsan Haji Safi, who had been dropped for playing a European league game against an Israeli squad played for the full 90 minutes. However, Masoud Shojaei, who also played for Greek side Panionios against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Athens was not in the game.

‘Heroes on the pitch’

Mohamad scored in the 13th minute before Iran equalized through Sardar Azmoun, who chested in a rebound on the stroke of half-time and then put the hosts ahead in the 64th minute.

Al Soma’s heart-stopping goal had one Syrian team official in tears before the players hugged and celebrated at the final whistle.

Iran’s Ehsan Hajsafi (R) and Ali Karimi (L) fight for the ball against Syria’s Firas Mohamad Alkhatib during the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualification football match between Iran and Syria at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 5, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)

“God willing we will continue the journey… the qualifications have started again,” said Al Soma. “The players were heroes on the pitch from the first minute until the last minute.”

Mardkian said: “We played with a united spirit, for Syria, for the Syrian people, for the kids, for all the people.”

He added: “We’re thinking about the play-off and there’s more work to do… We hope to achieve what is worthy of Syria’s name.”

The top two in Group A and B gain automatic entry to the World Cup, while the two third-placed teams face each other — with the winner going into an intercontinental clash against the fourth-placed side from the CONCACAF federation.

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