SYDNEY — Omar al-Soma’s free kick crashed into the post with moments to go, ending war-torn Syria’s World Cup hopes and allowing Tim Cahill’s Australians to squeeze into the final playoff for a spot in Russia.
The 37-year-old Cahill delivered again for Australia with both goals in a dramatic 2-1 extra-time win over Syria on Tuesday that clinched the Asian playoff series 3-2 on aggregate.
The Australians will next play a home-and-away series in November against CONCACAF side Honduras, which finished in fourth place in the North and Central America and Caribbean qualifying group. The winner of that series qualifies for Russia.
Syria’s improbable run toward a first World Cup attracted global attention, which heightened after it salvaged a 1-1 draw in the first leg last week at its adopted home ground in Malaysia.
Syria’s chances grew dramatically after it took a 1-0 lead in the return match after al-Soma’s goal in the 6th minute, but Cahill’s powerful headers in the 13th minute and in extra time secured Australia’s place in a playoff next month against the fourth-place team from North and Central America.
“I don’t know why we have to make it so hard — it shouldn’t be that difficult for us,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “We left it late and we had to work awfully hard, but I think we deserved to get through. The players showed tremendous character.”
Postecoglou singled out Cahill, who has been a star of Australia’s World Cup campaigns since scoring against Japan in Germany in 2006, for his composed performance.
“Timmy is Timmy, that’s why he’s a great Australian sportsman.” Postecoglou said. “He’s got real belief in himself. He’s just a unique, extraordinary individual and he led from the front tonight.”
But for a matter of inches, it could have been Syria striker al-Soma getting all the accolades. After returning to the national team from a self-imposed five-year absence amid the war in his country, al-Soma played a vital role in Syria’s surge to third spot in the third round of Asian qualifying — including the late equalizer against Iran in the last game which set up the playoff series against Australia.
He converted an 85th-minute penalty last week to secure the draw in Malaysia, and he opened the scoring in the return leg to silence a parochial 42,136 crowd at Sydney’s Olympic stadium. The crowd was silent again when al-Soma stepped up in the last minute of extra time with a chance to make it 2-2 — a result that would have allowed Syria to advance to the next stage on away goals — but his free kick missed by the narrowest of margins with keeper Mat Ryan beaten.
The crowd burst into victorious chants and celebrations. But the outcome stunned millions of Syrians watching the broadcast, and some of the disconsolate players who slumped to the ground.
The Syrian team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games in other countries. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year-old war, the country’s World Cup run was opposed by many Syrians opposed to President Bashar Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.
There’s no doubt, though, that the team’s progress was closely followed, with cafes crowded and schools and universities closed to allow students to watch the broadcast of the game far away in Australia.
Syria coach Ayman al-Hakim was full of praise for his team, which finished with 10 men after Mahmoud Almawas was sent off in the fourth minute of extra time after picking up a second yellow card.
“I am very proud of my boys with what they have achieved,” al-Hakim said through a translator. “At the end there are mistakes in soccer. The players followed instruction very, very well. But the Australian goal happens because of the pressure of the Socceroos.”
The Syrian team certainly didn’t lack passion, chasing the win right to the end.
With the score locked at 1-1 and an hour gone, Hakim sent in star playmaker Firas al-Khatib — who recently returned to play for the national team after a prolonged absence — to create the goal-scoring chance.
Al-Khatib created opportunities almost immediately, but the Australians also wasted chances and forced good saves from inspirational goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma to ensure the match was still 1-1 at the end of regulation time.
It took another incisive run from Cahill, powering home his 50th international goal from Robbie Kruse’s cross to finally give Australia the edge, as he has so often has in an international career spanning 103 games.
“You’ve got to write your own script,” Cahill said of his ability to score goals under extra pressure. “It’s a responsibility when I play. This is my passion. I will run to the end for this manager and these players. I’m proud of everything we have done together.”