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ACL Final Flashback: Al Karamah – 'The Pride of Syria'

Kuala Lumpur: With the final game of the 2019 AFC Champions League just days away, takes a trip down memory lane to when one of the most remarkable runs in the competition’s history almost culminated in its biggest shock.

As Urawa Red Diamonds attempt to overhaul a 1-0 deficit against Al Hilal at Saitama Stadium on Sunday, we wind the clock back to 2006, when tournament debutants Al Karamah of Syria made it all the way to the showpiece event.

Then, after losing the first leg away from home against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the Blue Eagles were part of one of the most memorable second-leg match-ups the tournament has ever seen.

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Group winners

Al Karamah dominated Syrian football from 2005 to 2009, winning four straight league titles, but it was their performance in the 2006 AFC Champions League that is perhaps their finest achievement.

Syrian clubs first appeared in the revamped AFC Champions League in 2005, but the struggles of both Al Jaish and Al Wahda highlighted how difficult the challenge of competing on the Continental stage would be. Between them, they won just one of their 12 group stage games, with Al Wahda losing all six.

But Al Karamah turned the form book on its head a year later when they took the competition by storm, advancing on top of a group comprising Iranian side Saba Battery, the United Arab Emirates’ Al Wahda and Qatar’s Al Gharafa.

The club from Homs won four of their six group games, including all three at their Khaled Ibn Al Waleed Stadium and a stunning away victory against a Saba Battery team featuring Ali Daei, to qualify for the quarter-finals at the first time of asking.

Champions toppled

While few would have predicted they would reach the last eight, what came next shocked the Continent as Al Karamah ousted an Asian giant.

Up against two-time defending champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, the Syrian side were given little hope, and a 2-0 first-leg defeat in Jeddah seemed to underline that train of thought.

Chasing an unlikely win in the return meeting, though, Al Karamah threw caution to the wind and goals either side of half-time from Eyad Mando and Ahmad Al Omier had the home support bouncing as the match went to extra-time.

Mohanad Al Ibrahim then produced a stunning cameo off the bench, scoring twice to seal a dramatic 4-0 win that saw the Syrian side through to the semi-finals.

Inspirational coach

“I said after the first match in Jeddah that there was everything to play for in the second leg and that is what happened,” said head coach Mohammed Kwid following the game.

“We faced a big team that has won the tournament twice and they had a 2-0 advantage. Therefore, winning today is a great achievement.”

Kwid, a former player with Al Karamah in the 1970s, was the driving force behind the side, and to this day he is revered by those who played under him.

“Mohammed Kwid was not just a coach, he was a father to everyone,” Brazilian defender Fabio Santos, the only foreigner in the 2006 team, recalled.

“I arrived in the country, where I didn’t know anyone, and he helped me on and off the pitch. My football grew a lot with him. He is a great coach, and a great person. He is a father that I have gained for life.”

The dream continues

Kuwaiti side Qadsia SC came next but, having won their previous four matches at home, the Blue Eagles would have to settle for a 0-0 draw and look to do what no other side had done that year – beat Qadsia SC in Kuwait City.

And the Syrians silenced the fans inside Al Sadaqua Walsalam Stadium after just 15 minutes when Aattef Jenniat rifled home a superb long-range goal to go 1-0 up.

It was a lead they would not relinquish, despite the Kuwaitis earning a late penalty, as they held on for a 1-0 win and, against all the odds, Al Karamah were through to the final.

The final hurdle

With West Asia meeting East Asia in the tournament finale, Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors awaited in the showpiece event after they had reversed a first-leg deficit to defeat domestic rivals Ulsan Hyundai 6-4 on aggregate in their semi-final with a result Al Karamah were not expecting.

"We had an eye on meeting Ulsan as we thought that they had the upper hand," Kwid admitted.

"But since Jeonbuk won that clash, we have to reconsider our options and tactics for the final. But the good thing is that we'll play the second leg at home."

It perhaps explained their performance in the first leg, as Jeonbuk asserted their home advantage with second-half goals from Yeom Ki-hun and Brazilian midfielder Botti, the latter coming in the 91st minute in a hammer blow to Al Karamah, who now faced the daunting prospect of having to again overturn a two-goal deficit at home.

"It was a tough opening period," said Jeonbuk coach Choi Kang-hee ahead of the trip to Homs.

"Al Karamah were strong physically, stronger than we expected. Today we won 2-0 so the second leg should be a little easier.”

Syria awaits

But the Blue Eagles had turned their home stadium into a fortress. Whatever Choi thought heading into the game, Kwid and his side had other ideas. As did the capacity crowd that packed into the stadium.

“Playing in the city of Homs in front of 40,000 fans had the biggest impact on the results of the team,” striker Al Omier said.

In the space of seven second-half minutes the home side turned the game on its head. Like he was against Al Ittihad in the quarter-final, Mando was again the man on the spot to tap the ball home after Mohamad Al Hamwi’s effort from the edge of the area ricocheted off both posts.

If the Al Karamah faithful thought that was good, things got even better seven minutes later when Ibrahim again proved himself the man for the big occasion, with his cross-cum-shot beating Kwoun Sun-tae from a tight angle to make it 2-0 and bring it back to 2-2 on aggregate.

So close but so far

Suddenly, Al Karamah were in the driving seat. Two quick goals and a now expectant home crowd spurring them on – it looked like they would go on and lift the title. But that is where the fairy-tale story ends. There was, sadly for the Syrians, no happy ending.

Brazilian Zé Carlos’ 86th-minute goal broke the hearts of every Al Karamah fan as the dream ended in the cruelest of fashions.

In the following two years, the Blue Eagles again made the quarter-finals, falling to Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Gamba Osaka respectively, continuing their impressive performances on the Continent, but nothing will top their run in 2006.

“It was very hard losing the final at our stadium,” Santos said. “Seeing the country crying, along with us, it was a very sad night for everyone.”

It’s been over ten years since a Syrian club last participated in the group stage of the AFC Champions League, but for those involved that magical run remains fresh in the memory.

“My memories of that tournament are beautiful and will remain with me for a long time,” said Al Omier. “Al Karamah was the pride of all of Syria.”

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