Iranian Football Players Abroad Assignment

More than 4,500 miles away - in the lobby of a five-star Malaysian hotel south of Kuala Lumpur - a group of Syrian footballers await check-in.

Some are arguing demonstrably about Real Madrid - the names Zidane and Ronaldo mixing with their passionate Arabic. Others sit quietly on their mobile phones.

This is Syria's national football team and their presence here in Malaysia is the culmination of a journey travelled by more than just themselves and their team-mates.

In October last year, playing in a World Cup 2018 qualifier away from home in Beijing, this side representing their war-torn nation of 23m people beat China - a country of 1.4bn that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its president’s plan for footballing success.

The players celebrated by going shopping with their win bonus.

This week, they are preparing to play Uzbekistan in arguably the most important game in their nation’s footballing history - and one that will make reaching the play-offs for a place at the World Cup in Russia next year a real possibility.

Win the game and they will earn a $1,000 (£800) bonus each, around a year’s wages for the average Syrian footballer and more money than most of the population can dream of in a country that has seen its currency devalue by around 1,000% since the start of the war.

So why Malaysia?

Economic sanctions, as well as security fears, mean no games can take place inside Syria and they are forced to play their home fixtures at neutral venues in front of very few fans.

That is easier said than done when you are a state with very few friends on the global stage. They came within one day of forfeiting this World Cup campaign entirely, given a lack of viable hosts.

It all serves to make their achievements all the more incredible.

Is there any other national team for whom a win and two draws in qualifying would not only mean so much but also be considered a great achievement?

A month before the victory against China, Syria drew against former World Cup semi-finalists South Korea. These results mean gradually, the footballing world is starting to pay attention to Syria for sporting reasons.

But this is not entirely a good news story.

There is no ignoring the control that president Bashar Assad’s regime tries to exert over its citizens and, once again, sport is no different.

The relative success of the team is both a passing panacea and a propaganda opportunity, the former for the people and the latter for the president.

To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of normalisation, of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control.

However, as we discovered, the reality is far from that.

There is a privilege to being a sports journalist, reporting on some of the biggest sporting events and stories from around the world.

Despite having more than 30 years experience between us this assignment was like no other and took us to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and finally Malaysia.

Ultimately, this is a story of 23 Syrian footballers, 23m Syrian people, 4.9m refugees, six years of war and one president.

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Playing positionPictureNameNational team membersClubDivisionCountry
ForwardKarimi, RezaReza KarimiNKF Teuta DurrësI Albania
DefenderFeizi, AshkanAshkan FeiziNAZAL PFKI Azerbaijan
GoalkeeperKamel, HosseinHossein KamelNAZAL PFKI Azerbaijan
ForwardBalijani, ShahinShahin BalijaniNKhazar Lankaran FKI Azerbaijan
WingerRezaeian, RaminRamin RezaeianYK.V. OostendeI Belgium
ForwardRezaei, KavehKaveh RezaeiYR. Charleroi S.C.I Belgium
StrikerAmani, RezgarRezgar AmaniNIFK MariehamnI Finland
Attacking midfielder, WingerDejagah, AshkanAshkan DejagahYVfL WolfsburgI Germany
MidfielderShojaei, MasoudMasoud ShojaeiYAEK Athens F.C.I Greece
ForwardAnsarifard, KarimKarim AnsarifardYOlympiacos F.C.I Greece
MidfielderHajsafi, EhsanEhsan HajsafiYOlympiacos F.C.I Greece
MidfielderMirdoraghi, MobinMobin MirdoraghiNSparta F.C.Il Greece
ForwardZahedi, ShahabShahab ZahediNÍBVI Iceland
MidfielderAdabi Motlaghi, HamedHamed Adabi MotlaghiNFC UngheniI Moldova
WingerJahanbakhsh, AlirezaAlireza JahanbakhshYAZ AlkmaarI Netherlands
Striker, WingerGhoochannejhad, RezaReza GhoochannejhadYSC HeerenveenI Netherlands
GoalkeeperEtemadi, AgilAgil EtemadiNDe GraafschapIl Netherlands
GoalkeeperAbedzadeh, AmirAmir AbedzadehYC.S. MarítimoI Portugal
Center back, Centre midfieldPouraliganji, MortezaMorteza PouraliganjiYAl Sadd SCI Qatar
ForwardTaremi, MehdiMehdi TaremiYAl-Gharafa Sports ClubI Qatar
Attacking midfielderRafiei, SoroushSoroush RafieiNAl-KhorI Qatar
Left back, MidfielderJokar, AliAli JokarNAl-Shahania Sports ClubI Qatar
ForwardSharifzadeh, RezaReza SharifzadehNAl-Duhail SCI Qatar
DefenderTayyebi, MohammadMohammad TayyebiNQatar SCI Qatar
MidfielderKhoubiari, PejmanPejman KhoubiariNAl-Khor SCI Qatar
Center back, Centre midfieldMajidi, MeysamMeysam MajidiNAl-Shamal Sports ClubIl Qatar
DefenderKouroshi, SiamakSiamak KouroshiNMuaither SCIl Qatar
ForwardAzmoun, SardarSardar AzmounYFC Rubin KazanI Russia
Attacking midfielderShekari, RezaReza ShekariNFC Rubin KazanI Russia
Central MidfielderEzatolahi, SaeidSaeid EzatolahiYAmkar PermI Russia
Left-back, WingerMohammadi, MiladMilad MohammadiYFC Terek GroznyI Russia
StrikerSamizadeh, AlexAlex SamizadehNKilmarnock F.C.I Scotland
GoalkeeperHaghighi, AlirezaAlireza HaghighiYAFC EskilstunaI Sweden
MidfielderAhmadi, KarvanKarvan AhmadiNIK Sirius FotbollI Sweden
MidfielderShojaee, ArvinArvin ShojaeeNGAIS GöteborgIl Sweden
Right backZanjanchi, Martin JohanssonMartin Johansson ZanjanchiNAssyriska BKIlI Sweden
MidfielderMaroufi, ShahoShaho MaroufiNFC WilIl  Switzerland
Left back, MidfielderPooladi, MehrdadMehrdad PooladiNBangkok United F.C.I Thailand
MidfielderSadeghian, PayamPayam SadeghianNOsmanlısporI Turkey
ForwardAhmadi, PoriaPoria AhmadiNRhyl FCI Wales

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