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Cuper’s Syria will make amends for last AFC Asian Cup failure, says Mohammed Osman

The 2019 Asian Cup did not go well for Syria. After a draw with Palestine and defeat to Jordan in their first two matches, veteran German coach Bernd Stange was sacked and Fajr Ibrahim drafted in mid-tournament for his fourth stint at the Syria helm.

While the Qasioun Eagles performed well in their final group game against Australia, they ultimately lost 3-2 and crashed out — finishing bottom of their group. For midfielder Mohammed Osman, now playing for Thai club Lamphun Warriors, then still in the early throes of his international career with Syria, it was a strange situation to witness.

“Honestly, for me this was unusual because I had all my professional career in Holland and I think there is a very different way of working there,” Osman, who has played for Vitesse, Heracles and Sparta Rotterdam in the Netherlands, told Arab News.

“In Europe, teams might think very carefully before replacing a coach, but in Asia it can often be quite straightforward and impulsive and that is what happened with Syria. They decided to sack the coach. As a player this decision is not in your hands, so you just try to focus on training and being ready for the next game.”

That next game was an agonizing defeat to Australia, in which Syria twice battled from behind before Tom Rogic snatched a last-minute winner for the Socceroos. Finishing bottom of the group in the UAE was a bitter pill to swallow, so what exactly went wrong for Syria?

“I feel like the approach then was just run until you cannot run anymore but you need to be more adaptable than this at international level,” Osman said. “I think the tactics of the team have become more established in the past four years and there is now a long-term vision of how we want to play.

“We have grown a lot as a group; we know each other well and we have played together a lot more. And, of course, we now have a coach that has a kind of team ID or DNA that he wants to share with the players; the way he wants to play is very clear.”

It was in February that experienced Argentine Hector Cuper was surprisingly named Syria’s new coach. Cuper, 68, was famously a two-time Champions League finalist with Valencia and more recently an Africa Cup of Nations runner-up with Egypt in 2017.

“Hector Cuper has a big, big history in football,” Osman said. “He has coached some of the very best players in the world, like Ronaldo with Inter Milan and Mo Salah with Egypt, so, of course, we respect him a lot.

“He is a coach with his own tactics and game plan. We’ve seen that from the first moment he arrived. A big part of that has been the staff and coaches he has brought as they know him well and have been working for many years together.

“Everything he has introduced has made perfect sense to the players and I think this kind of leadership was something we really needed as a group because we have lots of players playing in different countries. The coach has given us something with Syria that we can hold on to — a game plan that we can all believe in.”

At the 2023 Asian Cup that game plan will initially be tested in Group B, which contains Australia, India and Uzbekistan, the team against whom Osman made his international debut.

A clash with the Socceroos offers Syria the opportunity to avenge both the 2019 Asian Cup defeat and the more painful loss in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off, which denied the Qasioun Eagles a first-ever appearance at the finals.

“Things have changed a lot for us since then but we know that Australia is still a very strong team that has played in the World Cup many times,” Osman said.

“Against Australia, Uzbekistan and India we know we have to be fully focused but as a group we certainly believe we can qualify for the knockout rounds and then you can continue to build from there. We will take things step by step.”

Osman grew up in the Netherlands after his parents moved to Europe from Syria. The midfielder represented Holland at youth level, playing with the likes Al-Jazira defender Karim Rekik, Atletico Madrid forward Memphis Depay and Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong.

Syria coach Cuper has included several Europe-based players in his Asian Cup squad, while Pablo Sabbag, Ezequiel Ham and Ibrahim Hesar all play their club football in South America.

Osman recognizes he was fortunate to have his grounding in the Netherlands but hopes some of his Syria teammates who have not played outside their homeland may also have the chance to experience European football in the future.

“I can only speak about the academies in Europe — they provide an excellent foundation for technique and tactics that I just don’t think you get in Asia,” Osman said. “I think there is still a big difference because of the quality of coaches and the level of professionalism.

“I think there is an appreciation of this among the Syria players who play in Syria because moving to Europe is very much something they would love to do.

“The Asian Cup is a very big tournament and for many players it is a very big market, a platform to perform and show what you can do. It gives this extra incentive knowing that if you have a good tournament, you could have an exciting new opportunity.”

Progress through Group B in January would mean an even bigger stage for Syrian players to showcase themselves and Osman and his teammates will likely be helped by substantial support in Qatar.

With Syria still unable to play home games because of the conflict in the country, Osman says the team appreciates the effort that Syrian fans around the Gulf make to follow their national team.

“It is special to play for Syria. It the country where I was born, and it is my parents’ country; I speak Arabic and I feel totally at home every time I am with the national team.

“I would, of course, really love to play a match in Syria; I’ve seen videos of fans following our games there and there are thousands of people watching on big screens. When you have such passionate fans who love the game, love the sport, it is obviously a real boost to be able to play in front of them and also a disadvantage that we can’t.

“We still get a lot of Syrian fans coming to support us, particularly when we play in the UAE, Qatar or Saudi Arabia — there are big communities of Syrian people and I know they will be there at the Asian Cup. But to one day actually play a match in front of them in Syria — this would be a dream come true.”