Fans hold Syrian flags as they watch the 2018 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Syria, in Damascus, on September 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Omar Sanadiki

An equalizing goal deep into stoppage time on Tuesday night kept alive civil war-torn Syria’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time.

With Syria facing elimination against Iran, in Tehran, Omar al-Somah – who has just returned to the team after a five-year absence – scored to clinch a 2-2 draw and a place in the Asia-Pacific playoffs, where they will face Australia in a two-match series next month. The winner of that double-header will then face another round against a team from the Concacaf federation.

At Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, Syria took a shock lead through Tamer Haj Mohamad’s header, before Sardar Azmoun scored twice to put the hosts in front as the game entered its denouement.

Elsewhere, a goalless draw with Uzbekistan was enough for South Korea to claim second place, ahead of Syria, in Asian qualifying group A, and with it automatic progression to Russia next summer. Iran had already secured qualification as winners of the group.

The fact that Syria are even in contention is an extraordinary achievement, given the ravages of a bloody six-year war in the country. The team currently plays its home matches in Malaysia and has been hobbled by a lack of funds and by players going missing or into exile. Reports suggest many sportsmen in the country have in fact been interned or killed by government forces.

That the team had to travel to Iran was also laced with with dark irony: the Iranian state has bankrolled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign against opposition forces. Meanwhile, critics have accused Assad of trying to use football as a means of re-legitimizing his regime on the international stage.