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Soccer Players Aim To Bring Joy To Syria Through Sport

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Syrian Al-Wahda's players cheer up on the pitch during the Syrian Cup football match against army's Al-Jaish team on September 10, 2013 at the Techrine stadium in the Syrian capital Damascus. Syria's army has been waging a bitter war against rebels across the country for more than two years, but they suffered a setback on a Damascus football pitch against local team al-Wahda. (credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian Al-Wahda’s players cheer up on the pitch during the Syrian Cup football match against army’s Al-Jaish team on September 10, 2013 at the Techrine stadium in the Syrian capital Damascus. Syria’s army has been waging a bitter war against rebels across the country for more than two years, but they suffered a setback on a Damascus football pitch against local team al-Wahda. (credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

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SINGAPORE (AP) — For Anas Makhlouf and his Syrian national team, even the so-called home games in Asian Cup qualifying are played a long way from the fans who desperately want them to win so they’ve got something to celebrate amid a bloody civil war.

The Syria coach gets his team of mostly foreign-based professionals together for a few days around dates on soccer’s international calendar and hope they can compete fueled by emotion.

“Everyone knows about our bad situation, but we try to do something for our people over there to help them to be in a good situation,” Makhlouf said. “The Syrian people, they love football and they are looking for a good team and a good result, and that’s why we have to do this for them.”

This week they’re in Singapore, preparing for an Asian Cup group match. Syria (0-1-1) is third in Group A with one point, ahead of last-place Singapore (0-2) and trailing Oman (2-0) and Jordan (1-0-1).

The Syrians are playing their next two home games in Oman and Iran as they try to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia. The top two nations in each group qualify along with the best of the five third-place teams.

Makhlouf knows three points in Singapore on Tuesday would be crucial to get the qualifying campaign back on track and bring some joy to the people of Syria amid a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million Syrians to flee the country and caused psychological, emotional and physical suffering.

“The players are aware of the fans feelings, our fans who are following us through the Internet or live communications, we know how much our supporters are waiting to feel happy especially that tomorrow is the Eid day,” Makhlouf said Monday. “We wish them, we wish our Syrian people all the best and peace. I hope tomorrow we will give them a small present on this occasion.”

The Syrian squad assembles in Beirut for training camps, bringing professional players from across the region and a few from Damascus.

“We can only have the players on FIFA days for short camps of two or three days and this doesn’t help working on the coherence of the team but we hope this doesn’t affect them because most of the players have been playing together for a while,” Makhlouf said.

Singapore coach Bernd Stange knows from experience the kind of challenges that Makhlouf faces preparing a team for an international tournament. He coached the Iraq national team from 2002-04.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, “there was nothing left — not footballs, no equipment. It was very difficult,” Stange said. “We couldn’t play any matches in Iraq.”

“But the players are very, very motivated to play for their country, to show the people who suffer at home under very difficult circumstances that, `We are here, we want to deliver something.’ And it was very dangerous to play against Iraq. Even in this difficult time, (Iraq) had their most successful period.”

Iraq produced some upsets to win the 2007 Asian Cup, including a group-stage win over an Australian team playing in the continental tournament only a year after a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Italy in the second round of the World Cup.

Syria captain Sanhareb Malki said it would boost the Syrian people if his team could achieve anything near that.

“It would give happiness to the people on this tragic period for us, for the moment,” Malki said. “It’s like Iraq … we need to try to do the same.

“Everyone in Syria loves football — they follow us on Facebook, Twitter, on this kind of things. They try to send us messages to encourage our team, because we can’t play at home. For these kinds of people we need to give everything and we will fight.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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