Firas al-Khatib never imagined he would abandon Syria’s national colours for years only to return in search of World Cup glory for his war-battered country.
The striker from the central city of Homs, regarded as a cradle of the Syrian conflict that broke out in 2011, announced in July of the following year he would not don the national team’s colours until the guns fell silent.
This year, Khatib, now 34, who plays his club football in Kuwait for Al-Salmiya, has made his return despite the conflict, which has cost more than 330,000 lives, showing no sign of ending.
Without going into too much detail about his change of heart, Khatib told AFP he wants “to give the Syrian people some joy after a long, difficult period”.
“All Syrians would be happy if we qualify for the World Cup” finals being hosted by Russia next year, he said. “If the country is calling us, we must respond to that call.”
But qualification is still a long shot, with two legs of Asian play-offs to come against highly-fancied Australia this month.
The winner of that showdown will still have to take on a team from the CONCACAF region in home and away matches in November to finally seal qualification.