Matt Jones speaks to Syria coach Bernd Stange as a storybook tale finally will get to be told at next year's Asian Cup
Croatia outshining their 1998 golden generation. Egypt making just a second-ever finals and first in almost 30 years. England casting years of shame and embarrassment aside with one of their most inexperienced and youngest teams. Hopeless Russia providing a nation with plenty of it for the future.
These were the best feel-good stories of this summer’s World Cup. The most epic tale, however, never quite got to be told.
Syria, torn apart by an intense civil war since 2011. Yet despite all the unrest and bloodshed, their national team were a whisker away from making a maiden World Cup this summer.
The Qasioun Eagles had their wings clipped by Australia in Asian qualifying, making a resplendent run to the latter stages before they lost 3-2 in the play-offs to the shaky-looking Socceroos, who nevertheless somehow won the on-field battle to earn a spot in Russia.
But the Eagles won’t remain flightless for long. Next January Syria will surely soar when they feature at the 2019 Asian Cup – where their heartbreaking yet heroic, and rather quite brilliant story, will finally be read by the masses.
It’s a story Syria boss Bernd Stange hopes is far from over either.
“It should be a great challenge but we cannot underestimate any team in qualification,” Stange, the experienced German coach, said.
Syria line-up in Group B in the UAE in January alongside reigning champions Australia, as well as Palestine, who featured for the first time Down Under in 2015. Jordan make up the quartet.
“Palestine are a good team, we are a good team, Australia are a good team and then maybe you believe Jordan is an underdog. But they aren’t. You have Palestine first up and you have to be ready for the Asian Cup. That’s why nobody is afraid but we respect all the teams. We will be ready on January 5.”
Led by the reigning Asian Player of the Year Omar Khrbin – already familiar with UAE audiences having risen to prominence in the Emirates with Al Dhafra during a 2016-17 spell – Stange is rightly confident.
“Honestly I believe Syria should make the next stage after the group,” said Stange, speaking in Dubai at the draw for the competition back in May.
“We go step by step. Circumstances are not easy for us, even in the preparation stage. We have to make the group stage and we should be strong enough. Players are strong enough and want to achieve something. We will see, if we make it past the group stage I think everything can happen.”
It takes a special and mentally strong person to want to take a job like Stange’s. The 70-year-old had coached in comfort for the most part of his career, taking charge of East Germany’s Under-21s, Olympic and finally the senior team in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s before reunification in 1990.
He then moved on to Germany’s top-flight with Hertha Berlin, before coaching stints in Ukraine and Australia. He wondered even more off the beaten path, briefly, when he was named the head coach of the Oman national team in 2001. A year later he got really adventurous, taking the Iraq job.
Amid threats from United States President George W Bush of a possible military conflict with the country, Stange arrived in Baghdad in October 2002 and put pen to paper on a four-year contract that included a clause allowing him to leave in the event of war.
US military forces invaded in 2003 but Stange stayed put. From bullets being fired at his bodyguard to witnessing sites of suspected chemical attacks, he’s clearly not a man who chases an easy life, or runs from a difficult one.
He signed a contract to take over Syria in January this year. He lives in the capital Damascus despite being aware of the reported 400,000 people that have been killed or reported missing over seven years of war.
What makes a man want to continue to work in these sorts of environments, where there is such risk?
“People are hungry to see football,” Stange says, simply.
“It was similar in Iraq and maybe it was tougher there after the war. It was very dangerous, with hostages and all the other things.
“I’ve been in Basra for a tournament with Qatar and Iran with capacity crowds, 65,000, in the stadium. But if you see how those people need football. A 15-year boycott and now they are happy to be in Karbala or Basra, and that’s a motivation for me.
“It’s a challenge to do similar things with the Syrian team, that’s my goal. Now I am focused to do my job in Syria and I’m not afraid because if you are afraid you cannot go to an airport in Europe, you cannot go to a Christmas market, you cannot go to a coffee shop in Paris, it’s everywhere.
“I hope the world will be quiet and we can play football and make people happy.”
Pushed on why he took the Syria job rather than ease more gently towards retirement, he adds: “I had easy jobs, with Perth Glory in Australia. It’s easier to coach such a team or in Germany or Belarus.
“I thought I would finish my job (after the failed World Cup qualification) but they are so kind these people, and so full of hope after our campaign. We met each other and with the players, I feel there’s a very good atmosphere and that’s why I’ve signed this contract until January.”
Bert van Marwijk qualified fellow Asian Cup opponents Saudi Arabia for this summer’s World Cup. But he didn’t get the chance to take them to Russia as he was sacked during contract extension discussions – although he did end up going, coincidentally in charge of the Socceroos.
The Dutchman attracted criticism for his reluctance to relocate to the country during his two years in charge. That is not an issue for Stange though who happily resides in the Syrian capital.
“For me, I’m like a Syrian. I’m living with them, I do my job in Damascus,” he said.
“It’s not easy right now as you know and very difficult to plan the future under circumstances of war. It’s now seven years that nothing goes normal and it’s not easy. But I try to do my job.”
He also reserves plenty of praise for the players, who have forged successful paths outside their homeland. Although they must do so knowing the dangers their families deal with on a day to day basis back home.
He is proud of their commitment, saying: “You know these are Syrians who left their country, but their families are still there. Asian player of the year Omar Khrbin, Omar Osama are all coming back for Ramadan to see their families and they are committed. They are Syrians.
“I felt similar things when I visited players in Europe, in Germany, in Holland, in Sweden, in Italy, they are all Syrians, they want to show they want to play for their home country.”
Stange was hired as Iraq coach after the country’s football authorities were impressed by him earning a 1-0 victory over them with Oman.
And the German feels his impressive handling of the Lions of Mesopotamia was what led to Syrian football officials approaching him.
“I think they approached me to coach Syria because of this experience which I made in Iraq before and after the war,” he added.
“To be quiet under difficult circumstances, to show leadership, to show them a way to make international contacts, to arrange training, good matches. That’s maybe why they approached me.
“I’m quite happy to now, everything is on track and that’s why I think we are not a dark horse for this tournament. I think we can achieve something.”
Syria’s is a story already worth reading, but Stange feels he and his current squad can add a few more chapters come January.