Late penalty equaliser by Omar al-Soma in first leg of qualifier keeps national football team in contention for 2018 tournament in Russia
Syria's national football team remained on course to earn a place at next year's World Cup finals in Russia with a 1-1 draw with Australia in the first leg of their Asian qualifying tie.
Omar al-Soma scored a late penalty equaliser after Robbie Kruse had put Australia in front in the first half.
The match, in which Syria was officially the home team, was played in Malaysia because of the country's ongoing civil war.
Previously, Syria, which has never qualified for the World Cup finals, had also been playing its qualifying matches in Oman.
The second leg will be played in Sydney on Tuesday with the winner of the tie advancing to another playoff against the fourth-placed team in the North American qualifying tournament.
The team currently fourth in that tournament with two rounds of matches to play is the United States.
It's a Syria goal! Australia concede a soft penalty and the underdogs stun the favourites with an equaliser ⚽️ 1-1! pic.twitter.com/lTHuaCv3hx
— Goal (@goal) October 5, 2017
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan and South Korea have already qualified from the Asian confederation for the 32-team tournament.
Syria's progress through World Cup qualifying is considered remarkable because of the backdrop of the country's war, which resulted in several players refusing to play for the national side in protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Footballers caught up in the conflict include Jihad Kassab, a former national team player who was reported to have been detained by security forces in Homs in 2014 and executed in 2016. Several of Kassab's teammates at Homs' Al Karama club are also reported to have been killed.
Another national team player from Homs, goalkeeper Abdel Basset al-Sarout, abandoned football in 2012 to join the uprising against Assad and became a rebel fighter and an icon for the rebellion.
But several players, including al-Soma, who is considered to be Syria's most celebrated footballer as a consequence of his goalscoring feats in the Saudi league, have since returned from exile to play for the national team.
Speaking to MEE's Peter Oborne earlier this year, Syrian national team manager Fadi Dabas expressed the hope that the national team's progress could help bring Syrians closer together.
"It is a dream for any manager or any player to go the World Cup," he said. "We make all the Syrian crowds happy. We do this for all Syria. We will fight to the last moment to get to Russia.”
Qualifying for next year's finals would see the Syrian team travel to Russia which has been one of the Syrian government's staunchest allies during the conflict, carrying out air strikes in rebel-held areas and deploying soldiers in support of Syrian government forces and its allied militias.