Peru providing a good news story as South America qualifying reaches its conclusion
Some of the coverage of Syria's draw with Iran last week seemed to regard it as a football fairytale, an example of the power of sport to bring joy to a troubled land kind of thing.
Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that. The 'a nation rejoices' narrative doesn't make much sense when the team represents only half a nation, a half which is killing the other half in large numbers. The extent to which the Syrian team is identified with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was underlined earlier this year when vice-president of the Syrian FA Fadi Dabbas said the team were playing for "our president," and that the job of a team was to show the world that "Syria is fine".
Two years ago, then manager Fajr Ibrahim, who calls Assad "the best man in the world", turned up to a press conference wearing a T-shirt bearing Assad's picture, as did a couple of his players. Former team members have said players were being forced to attend demonstrations in favour of the regime.
Even the player whose late equaliser against Iran, Omar al Somah, earned Syria the play-off has just returned to the team after a five year absence in protest against the regime. They now play Australia, and the winners will go into a play-off against the fourth-placed North and Central America team to go to the World Cup in Russia.
There have been suggestions that some members of the team are playing because they fear measures would be taken against their relatives otherwise. The regime controls their passports which means defection is not an option. Syria play their games in Malaysia as their normal home stadium in Damascus is being used to store artillery and train soldiers.
So recasting the story of the Syrian team as a heart-warming triumph over adversity is in supremely bad taste. Even if circumstances were different and the story less complicated there would still be something simple-minded about making this a 'sport transcends grief' story. Almost half a million people have died in the Syrian civil war and several million have been made homeless. Pretending that the result of a football match somehow lessens the enormity of all this is as cheap as it gets. Some things are bigger than sport.
If you're looking for an encouraging World Cup story perhaps it's best to look elsewhere.
To Peru for example. Beloved by past generations of European football followers for the flair they showed in the World Cup final tournaments of 1970 and 1978, the lads from the land of Cubillas and Chumpitaz have not made the finals since 1982 and finished rock bottom in the 2010 qualifiers. Yet with two rounds left in the marathon South American qualifying tournament, Peru lie in an unexpected fourth place, good enough for automatic qualification. Even fifth would earn them a play-off against New Zealand, pretty much a guaranteed victory.
Peru's best-known player is probably veteran striker Paolo Guerrero, a fine player for Hamburg in the Bundesliga for several years who's now with Flamenco in Brazil. Other players are drawn from clubs in Peru, the US, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, Ecuador, Brazil and England where winger Andre Carillo has recently joined Watford on loan from Benfica. Yet this far-flung bunch, managed by Argentinian Ricardo Gareca, currently lead both Argentina and Chile following a terrific 2-1 win last Tuesday away to Ecuador, who had beaten both Uruguay and Chile at altitude in Quito.
Argentina's embarrassing qualifying campaign reached a new low the same night when they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to group whipping boys Venezuela. But, though currently in fifth, they are level on points with Peru, who they play at home in their next game and should get the last automatic place after Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia. All the same a total of 16 goals from 16 games, given the awesome firepower available, places question marks over new manager Jorge Sampaoli, previously noted for helping Chile make the jump to world class.
In his absence, Chile look a lesser team, trail Peru by a point and will probably be fighting it out with them for the play-off place. They've just endured perhaps the most catastrophic week of any team in the competition, a home trouncing by Paraguay being followed by a loss to Bolivia.
The final day on October 10 when Peru host third-placed Colombia, Chile are away to already-qualified table-toppers Brazil and Argentina travel to Ecuador, should be quite the finale.
Personally, I'm rooting for Peru who I fell in love with when they destroyed a boastful Scotland at the 1978 finals in Argentina. It would be great to see that ultra-cool white jersey with the red diagonal stripe on the biggest stage again. They've been their usual carefree selves during the campaign and have both the third best attack and third worst defence. Peru really have got their country behind them, the 60,000 crowd which saw them beat Bolivia 2-1 in Lima last week was the joint highest for any match in the South American qualifying campaign.
Now that's a real good news story.
Sunday Indo Sport