AP

Surprising Syria prepared for World Cup playoff vs Australia

Leave a comment

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Regardless of how Syria does in its World Cup playoff against Australia, the team has helped football knock fighting out the headlines for a while in their war-torn country.

The Syrians are still in contention to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, and the journey to their biggest match so far has captured domestic and international attention.

Unable to play on home soil, the Syrians will “host” Australia at Malacca, Malaysia on Thursday in the first leg of an Asian playoff. The victor in the two-match series – the return match takes place in Sydney next Tuesday – will take on the fourth-place team from CONCAFAF, the confederation that consists of North and Central America and the Caribbean, in November. The winner of that will secure a spot at Russia 2018.

“We have worked so hard in qualification for the World Cup,” Syria striker Omar Khribin told The Associated Press. “The spirit in the team is very good. We know that we still have work to do, but we are ready for whatever happens.”

Syria placed third in Group A behind Iran and South Korea in the third round of Asian qualification, losing three of its 10 games. The top two teams in each group secured direct entry to next year’s World Cup leaving the third-place teams – Australia finished behind Japan and Saudi Arabia in its group – vying for an alternative route to Russia.

Just as the nation has been torn apart by war and either support or opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the national team has also been split, leading to some players skipping important qualifiers until recently. Within the team, though, things seem to be coming together.

Firas Al Khatib had been absent from the team until earlier this year when he returned along with striking colleague Omar al-Soma. Neither player has given their reasons as to why their exile ended except to say it’s related to sports rather than politics.

“The important thing is that the team is determined to try and qualify for the World Cup,” Khribin said. “We have played against some very strong teams so far such as South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan. We competed well against them and proved that we are also a strong team.”

Syria was regarded as an outsider at the start of the third round of qualification, and just two goals from the first seven games seemed to confirm that perception.

But after starting out as hard to beat and defensive, the Syrian team became more attacking in the latter stages of qualifying. The return of al-Soma and Al Khatib made a difference to give Syria one of the most dangerous forward lines in Asia, tallying seven goals in its final three games.

Two of those were in the make-or-break last game against Group A winner Iran in Tehran, where al-Soma scored deep in stoppage time to secure a 2-2 draw against a lineup that hadn’t conceded any goals in the previous nine games in qualification.

That result was enough to secure the match against Australia, which finished behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference.

Players, with “Syria” rather than names emblazoned across the back of their red jerseys, sank to their knees on the turf in Tehran to celebrate.

In Syria, thousands of dancing fans filtered onto the streets of Damascus chanting “Syria” and waving the country’s flags.

But while Syrians were delighted to reach the playoff stage, supporters of Asian Cup champion Australia were less enthused. The Socceroos have appeared at the last three World Cups and, despite just one loss in the qualifying campaign, coach Ange Postecoglou has come under heavy criticism for not ensuring an automatic spot in Russia.

“I have not lost (faith) in what I do,” Postecoglou said as he prepared this week to face Syria, which is unbeaten in five `home’ games in Malaysia. “We watched all their qualifying games. We know what they bring to it.

“It’s match play against an opponent over two games knowing that it’s do-or-die scenario. They managed to score goals late in games to get themselves results and obviously they are hard to break down.”

Syria midfielder Mohammed Zaher Midani was quoted as saying on the Asian Football Confederation’s website that his team would had the ingredients to beat the higher-profile Socceroos.

“Australia may have many prominent players who are known for their individual talents, but we have the enormous potential that comes from performing as a group, as well as the individual skills of our players,” Midani said. “And we have a huge motivation – which is to make the Syrian people happy.”

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

Photo by Trond Tandberg/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
Leave a comment

It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Leave a comment

VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE