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Iran and Syria, Russia 2018 and a Fix Risk

September 4th, 2017 · No Comments · Fifa, Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

We like to think sports are above and beyond politics.

We know that is not true, has never been true and never will be true.

Political imperatives often threaten fair and free sports events, and anti-competitive forces tomorrow have one of the greatest opportunities in modern times to take the narrative in a pre-ordained direction.

Iran versus Syria, in Tehran, on the final day of Asian Football Confederation qualifying for the 2018 Russia World Cup.

If the dark forces of arranged outcomes are in the ascendance, Iran, already the winners of the group, will lose; Syria will win and the latter will 1) gain an automatic berth to Russia or 2) move on to the AFC fifth-place playoffs with a chance to get to Russia by another route.

The Iran-Syria match is fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

By fair means or foul, Syria actually does have a chance. Here is what Group A of the AFC qualifying tournament looks like, after nine match days:

–Iran 21 points, plus-8 goal difference — already clinched a place in Russia 2018.

–South Korea, 14 points, plus-1

–Syria, 12 points, plus-1

–Uzbekistan, 12 points, minus-1

–China, 9 points, minus-3

–Qatar, 7 points, minus-6

The final-round matches:

Iran v Syria at Tehran

Uzbekistan v South Korea, in Tashkent

Qatar v China, in Doha

Top two qualify directly. Iran is in, and the next three are still alive for the second berth.

South Korea gets it with a win in Uzbekistan. Syria gets in with a victory and a Korea defeat or Korea draw. The Uzbeks can still get it with a victory (over the Koreans) and a Syria defeat.

Now, the politics — and rest assured many fans around the world are talking about this.

Iran has been the greatest ally of the Syria regime during its long and bloody civil war. Some would say Iranian forces pretty much tipped the fighting in favor of the Bashar Assad government.

That Syria is still playing for something in World Cup qualifying is remarkable, given that the team’s country is pretty much destroyed; Syria has not been allowed to play in Syria during qualifying.

The Syrian government would love to see its national team qualify for the World Cup — for the first time, by the way. Soft power, and all that. A positive story about Syria and the regime. A demonstration that something resembling normalcy is around the corner, under the regime. And regular folks in Syria certainly would take to the streets in celebration.

(Reportedly, giant TV screens were being put up in Damascus today so that Syrians can watch the match.)

Normally, Syria’s chances would not be considered great because Iran, under Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, is one of the great defense-oriented teams in world football. To the point of being perhaps the most difficult-to-watch semi-competent side in the world. Which means it is hard to find a country anywhere less likely to give up a goal at home than Iran.

In nine matches in this round, Iran has scored eight goals and conceded none.

You read that right.

Iran has produced two 2-0 victories, four 1-0 victories — and three scoreless draws.

(You may recall that Iran, under Queiroz, played the same style at the 2014 World Cup, yielding a scoreless draw with Nigeria before taking Argentina into added time, at 0-0, before Messi scored.)

Queiroz has said Iran will play to win, and social media accounts of Iran fans seem to agree, suggesting that the country wants its team to finish qualifying unbeaten and, also, unscored upon and insisting that Iran’s football establishment was ticked off by having to accede to Syria demands to play on a gooey pitch in Malaysia, where Syria earned a 0-0 “home” draw, last November .

(On this video, Carlos Quieroz seemed to knock down the “nothing to play for” argument, when he said: “The way Syria treated us in Malaysia, they treat us very badly. They been [sic] very aggressive to our players and our team, and the way they conduct and the behavior they did against our players and our team in Malaysia was not really the proper way.”)

More cynical folks note that Iran is already in, no one is really paying attention to Iran’s clean-sheet streak and that it is in perfect position to puts its ally into the World Cup by leaking just one goal to the Syrians. (Perhaps also pleasing 2018 host Russia, the international back of Assad and the regime.)

Even getting a playoffs berth, via a South Korea victory over Uzbekistan, would keep the side alive in the fifth-place playoffs, probably home and away to Australia, with the survivor going on to the inter-confederation playoffs to meet the fourth-place side out of North America. (Which could be the U.S., just to make all this even potentially more fraught with political issues.)

Backing up, there is precedence for shenanigans between allies impacting the World Cup. At Spain 1982, in what is sometimes called The Disgrace of Gijon, Algeria was set to advance to the knockout round — as long as neighbors and 20th century allies Germany and Austria did not produce one of only two results: Germany 2-0 or Germany 1-0. Any other score, and Algeria advances.

Germany won 1-0.

Fifa investigated and found no evidence of match fixing, but those who saw the game described an early German goal and then 80 minutes of time-wasting.

It would be pretty to think that Iran v Syria will be honest and fair competition.

It would be naive to think that is a sure thing.

Now, we wait.



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