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USA v Syria? With World Cup berth at stake, it might happen

Thursday 7th September 2017
FIFA mandates governments not interfere with national associations. Politics is the occasional pitch invader, though, as it may be in a USA v Syria playoff.

Another international break is over. For once, I can't wait to see what the next will bring.

World Cup spots are being filled as the tournament proper grows ever closer. We will know the 32 qualifying teams before November ends. Yet, there could be a match-up with extraordinary political tensions before all is said and done. The United States and Syria are on a potential collision course as both teams look to secure a World Cup place.

On Tuesday, Syria could have qualified for the first time in its history. Yet, Omar al Soma's 93rd minute equaliser in their draw with group leaders Iran wasn't enough to see them through. South Korea claimed the final automatic qualifier in the group with a goalless draw in Tashkent against Uzbekistan.
The point gained in Tehran still proved crucial to their hopes. Without it, the Uzbekis would have been awarded the play-off against Group B second runners-up Australia. As it stands, should Syria overcome Australia in their two-legged tie, they would next play the fourth-place nation in CONCACAF's Hexagonal.

That spot is currently held by the United States. The Americans also needed a late leveler in their testy away match in San Pedro Sula against Honduras but were later leapfrogged by Panama when the Canal Men defeated Trinidad 3-0 at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City.
Much can change in the remaining two games in Concacaf qualifying. The USMNT hosts Panama in October with the opportunity to reclaim third place, then travels to last-place Trinidad to close out their qualifying bid. Panama have a more difficult second match against Costa Rica. Meanwhile, fifth-place Honduras, level on points with the USMNT, must go through the Ticos and Mexico. Still, there is a real chance the US could face Syria for a place in the World Cup finals.

Football is growing in Syria. Yet, the best players must still leave to play professionally and in a stable environment. The average monthly salary for a Syrian Premier League player is just £161. Talented Syrian players are often lured to Saudi Arabia. Al Soma plays for Al Ahli. He bagged 24 goals in as many games, last season, making him Syria's star player. His form has contributed to the Quasioun Eagles' massive rise in the FIFA World Rankings. They've soared 34 places, to 80th, and are expected to climb even higher.
The Syrian Civil War's devastating effects force the national team to play its home matches in a neutral venue. Increasingly high political tensions in the Middle East have led to Malaysia, over 4000 miles away, being selected as that venue.

Were Syria to make it to Russia next year, the uniting effect it could have on the country is massive. Celebrations in Damascus after Syria secured their play-off spot were caught on camera. Jubilant supporters flooded the streets in their cars, honking and hooting in the morning's early hours.

With the conflict in its seventh year, the Syrian football team have had their funding cut completely. Worse, many players are with struggling domestic clubs.

The United States' influence in the war adds political weight to this potential match-up. It could attract global attention. That both are vying for a trip to Russia, another major player in the fighting, makes it all the more fascinating.

It isn't the first time war and politics have intruded on the World Cup but disagreements between the three governments would certainly make this game an unbelievable coincidence. The stakes add further drama. If the game is to happen, I'm sure Messrs Trump and Putin will keep an eye on the developments.
Billy Munday

I'm a young, aspiring sports journalist and also a Chelsea fan, living the dream in London. You can find more examples of my work on Chelsea blogs such as the Chelsea Chronicle.

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