Should Syria or Australia fly Asia’s flag in Russia?

John Duerden John Duerden

There is some anger and plenty of disappointment in Australia as the national team ended up in third place in Group B and missed out on an automatic place at the 2018 World Cup.

The Socceroos needed four points from their final two games to be sure of a place in Russia. Defeat to Japan in Saitama Stadium made that equation impossible. That 2-0 loss, a disappointing performance against a Japan team that had been lacking confidence and fluency, meant that the final home game against Thailand was suddenly different.

For the whole campaign, that clash with the War Elephants – rightly or wrongly – was seen as a guaranteed home win, a safe port at the end of the qualification storm. It would, if necessary, provide the points necessary to get the team , which had gone from 1974 to 2006 without an appearance among the global elite, to a fourth successive World Cup.

What the loss, a first against Japan in six qualifiers since Australia joined Asia in 2006, did was bring stress and tension to the game. Not only did Australia have to win, they had to win big to put pressure on rivals Saudi Arabia.

The West Asian team had the same points but a goal difference advantage of two. Another problem of losing in Japan was that it gave the Samurai Blue a place in Russia, removing them of the need to get a point in Jeddah.

“What if” has been a theme of the campaign: What if coach Ange Postecoglou had not switched from a back four to a back three in the middle of the stage? What if Tom Rogic had not picked up an injury? What if more than two of those 40-plus attempts against Thailand actually had ended up in the back of the net?

If there were dozens of attempts on goal, that was nothing compared to the amount of recriminations sent in the direction of Postecoglou. Many were equally wide of the mark but not all.

The boss, hailed as a visionary hero after winning the 2015 Asian Cup and trying to build a team and a way of playing for the future, has been accused of arrogantly and stubbornly using qualification as a chance to experiment. He has been charged with focusing solely on the big picture and forgetting the small detail of actually having to qualify for the World Cup.

Now the boss has the ultimate pragmatic task to handle: play-offs.

Only the maddest of soccer scientists experiments in these do-or-die showdowns. There is too much at stake. This is not the future to build towards. Win and you go to the World Cup, lose and you are in limbo for the next year.

Success means months of turbo-driven preparation, high profile friendlies and the excitement of heading towards the biggest sporting tournament on the planet. In terms of building a team, there is little experience that matches the World Cup, not to mention the financial rewards that come with it all.

That provides a fascinating backdrop to the coming two-legged playoff against Syria in October and a possible further elimination game with the fourth-placed team from the CONCAFAF region, which could be Panama, Honduras and even the United States.

Despite all the focus on the unlikely possibility of Syria making it to the World Cup, Asian fans should support Australia in the play-offs.

Syria are novel and exciting but Australia offer the best chance of Asia having five teams in the 2018 World Cup. That would be a refreshing change.

Syria are a team not to be underestimated. Tough to play against with a trio of attacking players in Omar Al Soma, Omar Khribin and Firas Al Khatib, just one of which would be welcomed by many Asian nations, the Qasioun Eagles have plenty of firepower. It is also one that is not averse to working hard to keep opponents out.

Yet while the Socceroos will do well to chat to South Korea and Iran about how to handle Syria, ultimately Australia should have enough to get through.

And more than Syria, the continental champions are the best choices to fly the flag for Asia in the final continental play-off. It is not just because Australia still has relatively recent experience of World Cup play-offs with past efforts burned into the collective soccer psyche both, for better and worse. It is a team full of players based all over the world who have one of the best coaches in Asia behind them.

Syria may make a more exciting story for fans and headline-writers around the world but for Asian football, it is good to see Australia in the play-offs.

At times, Australia have been accused of not doing enough for its new confederation. Now, they can give the continent a fifth team at the World Cup and Asian fans should get behind their champions.