BEIRUT (AP) — Millions of Syrians at home and abroad cheered, shouted and were ultimately left frustrated Tuesday as they watched their chance to qualify for their first ever World Cup soccer tournament end in disappointment.
The country's impressive showing had brought hope and a rare chance to celebrate among Syrians living with a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people. The "Dream," as a Syrian TV announcer described it Tuesday, ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.
President Bashar Assad, who has benefited from a Syria team thrust onto the world stage, saluted the players, known as the "Qasioun Eagles" after a mountain overlooking Damascus.
"You were heroes and drew smiles on the faces of all Syrians," Assad said in remarks carried on the presidency's Telegram page.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the Umayyad square in Damascus, seat of Assad's power, cheering and waving Syrian flags as they watched the game on giant screens.
"The Syrian team played in a mythical way. Although it lost the game, it has gained the respect of the entire world," 25-year-old Dima Al-Sawas said as she struggled to hold back tears.
The team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games abroad. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year war, the country's World Cup bid was not supported by many Syrians opposed to Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.
After the match on social media, some cheered while others derided the team, largely seen as being controlled by the Syrian government.
Many among the opposition called it the "Assad Team" or the "Barrel Bomb" team, in reference to the helicopter-borne explosive barrels dropped on civilians that became a trademark of Assad's military during the war. Images of the players wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Assad's face at news conferences reinforced the image of a national team controlled by a dictator.
"Congratulations on the defeat of one of the most dangerous attempts by the criminal Assad to promote himself," tweeted opposition activist Osama Abu Zeid, an adviser to rebels fighting to topple Assad.
The government had ordered Syrian schools closed to allow students to watch the game, and universities closed early to avoid traffic jams and possible roads closures. Most Syrian cafes also made preparations for the game and set up big TV screens for customers. The crowd burst in excitement and shouts of happiness when Omar al-Soma gave Syria the lead in the sixth minute.
"It was a hard luck for the Syrian team that has wasted no chance to win," said Maher Awad, a 20-year-old university student.
The game was beamed on large screens in city squares across provinces controlled by Assad.
"We got used to victories, come on guys!" said the announcer on state-run Syrian TV, in reference to a string of military victories by Assad's Russia and Iran-backed forces. "Twenty-three million Syrians are watching you."
Syrian refugees in neighboring countries also rallied around TV screens in tented settlements or cafes to watch.
"Hard luck to all Syrians who were in need for happiness after seven years of war," said Seifeddine Wannous, a Syrian who works for Iraqi TV and who fled the country to Lebanon in 2015. "Maybe its bad luck that ... we were not able to play on our land. Maybe we would have made a difference."
Associated Press writer Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.