Asian Cup 2019: Syria vs Palestine emerges as the hottest ticket
Huge expat communities of Syrians and Palestinians look to make the game a sell-out
It may not have the sporting history of Iraq vs Iran. The squads do not boast the star power of South Korea, whose forward Son Heung-min is valued at about Dh250 million. And neither has even got as far as the knock-out stages in past tournaments.
But a ticket to Syria versus Palestine has emerged as the most sought-after of the Asian Cup’s opening stages.
Priced from just Dh25, tickets are being sold for at least 10 times their face value on resale websites such as Viagogo, such is fans' desperation to be at the game. Sunday’s fixture in Sharjah promises to be one of the only sell-outs of the group stages.
For both nations, it is not just the prospect of sporting glory that is capturing the imaginations of supporters, according to fans and football experts. For Palestinians, the chance to take on the status of a state, even if only for 90 minutes, makes the national side special.
Syrians, meanwhile, are enjoying an unlikely golden era for their national side, in spite of the brutal civil war that has ravaged the country. Their footballers usually play "home" fixtures 7,500 miles from Damascus, in Malaysia.
The Syria manager, Bernd Stange, has said high levels of support from fans are his team’s “most important weapon”.
“The Syrian people have already suffered a lot,” said Iyad Ghalayini, a Syrian who moved to the UAE in 2012.
He said he was taking his wife, Ola, and their two children, Kinan, 14, and Karam, 8, to be at the game with Palestine.
“The Syrian people are excited about the tournament," he said. "They want something to be happy about and proud of. I think that’s why they are so enthusiastic.”
Their second match against Jordan is also a sell-out, while the full allocation in the Syrian section for their clash with Australia is also full.
Some fans see the final group game as a chance to gain revenge over the Asian Cup champions, who denied them a fairy tale appearance at last summer’s World Cup after Australia came from behind to win a nerve-wracking playoff.
While support for the national team has in the past been politicised, with the Assad regime accused of using it as a propaganda tool, some now see it as a vehicle for unity, according to Omar Almasri, a Palestinian sports journalist in Jordan.
Players who once refused to play for political reasons, such as striker Firas Al-Khatib, have returned, although the striker is not playing in this tournament due to injury.
Talented attackers, such as Omar Kharbin and Omar Al Somah, as well as the impressive World Cup qualification run, have captured imaginations.
“Syrians, for the most part, want the war to come to an end and mend divisions,” Mr Almasri said. “Supporting the national team, a side that has gained momentum and admiration from observers, has proven to be a timely distraction from the stressful and heartbreaking reality.
“For some non-players, particularly those opposing Assad, support can be considered an act of whitewashing which is understandable. Overall, though, I believe Syria will be cheered and spurred on vociferously throughout the tournament.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have overcome their own unique challenges to reach the tournament. A long battle to gain recognition from Fifa, which usually only allows countries universally recognised as nation states to participate in official international matches, was only won in 1998, and it would be 2011 before the first competitive international took place on Palestinian soil.
Players are often hit with travel restrictions, limiting their ability to train together and play in matches. Yet they too will be able to count on their own passionate fan base. When the team touched down at Dubai International Airport last week, hundreds turned up to greet them.
“For both Palestine and Syria, as well as Jordan, you will find a lot of fans,” said Mohammed Nabil, who was born in the UAE and is of Palestinian heritage.
He said he would be supporting both Palestine and the UAE in the tournament but agreed that the Palestine team took on a special significance for supporters due to its political situation.
“It is a big thing to see the Palestinian flag in the Asian Cup,” he said.
Updated: January 5, 2019 12:53 PM