Syria manager Bernd Stange is counting on supporters to help carry his team through the group stages at the 2019 Asian Cup, saying: "The fans are the most important weapon of our team."
Stange and his players arrived in Sharjah on December 25 to a heroes' welcome. The UAE is home to a huge Syrian diaspora.
Tickets for all three of Syria's Group B matches, against Australia, Jordan and Palestine, have sold out with fans desperately scrambling to try and purchase unsold tickets of opposing teams.
In support, the Syrian embassy in Abu Dhabi have also distributed 10,000 T-shirts to their fans.
Stange, a 70-year-old German, said fans can act as the team's "12th man" and drive the team through to the knockout stages, something they have never managed before.
“I’m aware of our fans who will fill the stands and that’s not something that I haven’t dealt with before in Germany," he said. "The fans are our No 1 player and our team want to give their best possible gift for them.”
Stange, a veteran with nearly 50 years' coaching experience, has previously managed the East German national team as well as Oman, Iraq, Belarus and Singapore and has been at the Syria helm since January 2018.
Syria open their campaign against Palestine in Group B on January 6 at the Sharjah Stadium before moving to Al Ain to take on Jordan four days later. They conclude their group phase with their toughest assignment against Asian champions Australia on January 15, also in Al Ain, at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium. Only the top two teams in each pool are guaranteed to progress, alongside the four best third-placed sides.
The match against Australia will give the Syrians a chance to exact some revenge for missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia after the Socceroos beat them 3-2 on aggregate in a play-off.
“It was a bitter disappointment indeed for Syria but they can take a lot of confidence from the strong footprint they left behind in that competition,” Stange said of missing out on the World Cup.
“The players are now hungry to win and offer their best in the Asian Cup. They want to improve their positions as professional players and look for new opportunities that may come their way during this tournament.”
Preparations for a major tournament will always be troublesome for Syria, given the country is still ravaged by a brutal seven-year civil war. No home games are played there and getting the squad together for extended training camps has been difficult.
“Not the best way to prepare but we are doing the best way we can,” Stange said.
Despite the less-than-ideal preparations Stange said their is great unity within the squad.
“The players know each other so well; we get on with our work in the best possible way. There is a massive bonding among them in whatever they do and I’m confident they will show the same spirit on the pitch.”
Syria, making their first appearance at the continental showpiece since 2011, have never before gone beyond the group stage. This year's Asian Cup is the biggest in terms of number of teams taking part, with 24 nations divided into six groups of four taking part in 51 matches across the UAE from January 5-February 1.
If they are to achieve an historic first and reach the knockout rounds it will have to be done without inspirational captain and forward Firas Al Khatib, who has been ruled out because of injury.
Hopes rest on the shoulders of Omar Khribin, the 2017 Asian Player of the Year, and Omar Al Somah. Khribin, 24, and Al Somah, 29, ply their trade in Saudi Arabia, for Al Hilal and Al Ahli, respectively.
UAE fans may remember Khribin's prolific season at Al Dhafra in 2016/17 when the Damascus-born striker netted 17 goals in 26 appearances before moving to Riyadh in June 2017.
Stange believes he has a squad capable of bloodying the noses of some of Asia's biggest teams.
“We are in a tough group but our first objective obviously would be to progress from the group stage,” he said.
“We face Palestine in the first game and that’s where our focus is at the moment. It’s a very important game to start our campaign.
“The Asian Cup is a challenge for all teams but we don’t fear any kind of opposition. We have the courage, determination and discipline to achieve what we want.”
Ahmad Al Salih, the defender who plays for the Lebanese side Al Ahed, said the squad were determined to bring joy to their countrymen back home.
“The circumstances in which we are in have made the entire squad more determined than ever to challenge for this title,” he said.
“We meet Palestine in the first game and they are in a similar condition which we are in. So this is a massive game for both teams and obviously an important one, considering Jordan and Australia are in the same group.
“Like us, they too have a good number of players plying their trade professionally in foreign leagues.”
Syria play Yemen in a friendly in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.