To outsiders this was a 2018 World Cup qualifier. To fans of Afghanistan and Syria who watched it live, however, it was much more than a football match.
With both countries wracked by war FIFA has barred them from hosting home games, making native supporters hard to come by in a slew of neutral venues and consequently dulled atmospheres.
But the choice of the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad — home to thousands of Afghan refugees and just three hours drive from the border as Thursday night’s venue — ensured there would be an audience fit for at least one team.
And so it was that hours before the game, thousands of local Afghans filed into Samen Stadium full of hope, leaving motorcycles — cheap and ubiquitous transport among the estimated three million of their countrymen exiled in Iran — stacked up outside.
Some had travelled further.
“I just wanted to see my team play,” Nadershah Noorzih, a 48-year-old driver from Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest and a mainly Persian-speaking city, told AFP, this time taking a taxi from the Iranian border rather than taking the wheel himself as normal.
But despite a bright start from the notional “home” side, Syria took the lead after 19 minutes, with striker Raja Rafe edging a close range header. When he doubled his tally 15 minutes later, coolly passing a shot into the net, the tone was set: Syria won 6-0.
The result didn’t seem to bother the Afghans — around 9,000 of whom paid between 200,000 and 500,000 Iranian rials ($6-$15) to attend. Instead of bemoaning the defeat they chanted for their team throughout and tooted their horns just as loudly when they left the stadium as when they arrived.
– ‘Make Afghanistan proud’ –
“We proved that even with empty pockets and hungry bellies we can make Afghanistan proud,” said Valimohammad Hashemi, an Afghan sports ministry official and fans’ liaison officer who came to Iran when he was only one year old.
Reflecting on the predicament of his fellow exiled Afghans, he added: “We have been in Iran for 30 years and we have good and bad memories. This game was never about the result for us. It was just nice to see our team here.”
The same philosophical reflection did not come from Syria’s head coach Fajr Ibrahim who, blaming western countries and Gulf states for his country’s troubles, insisted his team’s matches could be played safely in Syria, despite a civil war continuing to rage.
He also said his side can outplay fellow Group E qualifiers Japan, Singapore and Cambodia to reach the finals in Russia.
“Damascus is very safe, but despite this they will not let us play there. Regardless, we think it is our turn to qualify,” he said.
Besides the scoreline, the main thing that set the sides apart throughout the 90 minutes were the respective fan numbers. While Afghanistan had just under 9,000 according to the official attendance, Syria’s supporters could be counted by the naked eye — 9.
All came from nearby Ferdowsi University and, buoyed by a win perhaps made just a little too flattering by an injury time penalty that was duly converted, their loud backing drew applause from the Syrian team and support staff after the final whistle.