Iran beat underdogs Syria in a penalty shootout to set up a blockbuster quarter-final against Japan.
Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium, Qatar – What do you get when you take two football-mad countries, pit them against each other in a compact stadium and put a place in the round of 16 of the championship on the line?
Iran take on Syria at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium on Wednesday evening – battling for the last remaining quarter-final spot in the tournament. AFC Asian Cup 2023.
Iran emerged victorious after a penalty shootout was needed to separate the teams after a 1-1 result at the end of extra time.
It was an end-to-end fight that captivated the spectators for over two hours and the fight of the underdogs that Syria showed.
Iran started the match as favorites in many ways.
Higher ranking: Iran are second in Asia and 21st in the world in the FIFA men’s rankings, compared to Syria who are 91st in the world and 13th in Asia.
Past glory: Iran has won the Asian Cup three times – even though their last victory was 48 years ago – while Syria had never progressed beyond the group stage before.
Progress of the tournament: Iran dominated its group with three victories and a goal difference of five. Syria slipped into the round of 16 as one of the four best teams for third place thanks to a 1-0 win over hapless India and a goalless draw against Uzbekistan.
And finally, reputation: Iran was one of the contenders for the title alongside Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Syria has been listed among the teams that would do wonders by qualifying for the knockout stages.
Their progress excited the Syrian fans as it gave them the opportunity to see their team in action once again, especially in a stadium that kept them very close to the action. Both sets of fans loved every minute of the action.
The intensity of the action on the ground was closely linked to the songs and chants.
The hall, with a capacity of 10,000, was filled equally with supporters of both teams. They came prepared with drums, trumpets, flags of various sizes and powerful vocal cords. Once the action began, each wave of attack on the field was accompanied by a crescendo of noise from the field.
Iran took the lead when their star striker Mehdi Taremi converted a penalty in the 34th minute, but Syria continued to put pressure on the Iranian goal.
Their efforts paid off when they were awarded a penalty in the second half and Omar Khribin stepped up to convert it and send the Syrian fans to dreamland.
And when Taremi was sent off in added time, Syria felt the one-man advantage could help them secure victory.
But Iran managed to repel the Syrian attacks, which Team Melli coach Amir Ghalenoei attributed to a “compact and disciplined performance” in his post-match comments.
In the end, what separated them on the pitch after more than two hours of action was a penalty saved.
When Ehsan Hajsafi successfully converted Iran’s final penalty to make it 5-3 in the shootout, the Syrian players fell to the ground in disbelief. In the stands, their fans looked shocked. The children with their faces painted with Syrian flags sobbed but some fans, like Adnan Yazbek, said they were immensely proud of the team.
“Our team exceeded expectations to come this far and put up such a fight against Iran. So I’m heartbroken, but I have a smile on my face because they made me proud to be Syrian,” Yazbek told Al Jazeera.
Mohammed Abdullah, a Syrian fan, said the team had overcome many off-field challenges due to the ongoing war in the country and its attendant complications.
“Football is loved by everyone in Syria and this team is loved by all Syrians around the world,” Abdullah said.
“My little sister and I are heartbroken, but this is football and as long as we know our players gave their all, we will continue to support them.”
The Syrian team and its traveling supporters are returning home to focus on qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.
Meanwhile, Iran will face Samurai Blue in the afternoon kick-off of the third quarter-final on Saturday.