JordanIt was the denouement of a World Cup qualifying campaign that had begun 26 months and 18 matches earlier with a 9-0 drubbing of Nepal in Amman. Now, only Uzbekistan stood between Jordan and a game against the fifth-best side in South America for a place at Brazil 2014. And the game against the Uzbeks had gone to penalties.  

After a 1-1 draw in Amman, few gave Jordan a chance in the return in Tashkent. Indeed, a fifth-minute goal by Anzur Ismailov after a goalkeeping error suggested everything was going according to plan for Uzbekistan. But three minutes before half-time, Saeed Al Murjan struck a 30-yard volley that levelled the scores on the night and on aggregate. It was the one moment of genuine quality in what had been an untidy, scrappy match.

Extra-time came – and so too did a power cut before play resumed – followed by penalties. Uzbekistan missed their first spot-kick, handing the visitors the initiative. With the penalty scores tied at 2-2 and a nation watching, what promised to be the finest moment in Jordanian football history was wiped from the nation’s TV screens as the satellite broadcast connection dropped.

“The end of the match was already delayed by extra-time, a power cut and then penalties. Then everything stopped,” explained Wael, an Amman-based supporter. “No TV, the mobile networks jammed, 3G dropped. Nobody knew what was going on. A radio station said we’d won 4-2, but then it was 4-4. It was chaos.”

In Tashkent, Prince Ali Bin Hussein, head of the Jordanian FA and a FIFA vice-president who had followed his team throughout the long qualifying tournament, watched from the stands.  He thought their chance had gone when, to the elation of the home crowd,  Ahmad Ibrahim missed Jordan’s fifth penalty, which would have won the match. Uzbekistan then equalised to take the spot-kicks to sudden death.

Nine more penalties were converted before goalscorer Ismailov’s weak effort was saved by Jordan goalkeeper Amer Sabbah. A cavalcade of joyous Jordanian players piled on the hero of the moment as bereft Uzbeks in the Pakhtakor Stadium looked on in silence and disbelief.

“It was wonderful,” said Prince Ali. “Wonderful for our country and region. We still have to face a South American team [in a two-legged play-off in November], but I think our boys can do it. We have the soul and spirit. We will try our best and I hope we make it to the World Cup.”

Slow-burn process

Jordan’s rise to the brink of World Cup qualification under the Prince’s leadership has been a slow-burn process. Despite reaching the quarter-finals at the 2011 Asian Cup, performances in previous World Cup qualifying tournaments gave little hint that Jordan would be in with a chance of going to Brazil next year.

Success in the 2014 qualifying campaign has been built on a formidable home record, with China, Japan and Australia all seen off 2-1 on the bumpy King Abdullah Stadium pitch in Amman.

The downside was their poor away record, which included a 6-0 defeat in Japan and a 4-0 drubbing in Australia. Jordan’s Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad, despite taking the team to the Asian play-off, parted company with his employers at the end of the qualifying competition in June.

However, his replacement, the legendary Egypt striker Hossam Hassan, has instilled a defensive fortitude lacking in previous trips, and Uzbekistan rarely threatened in the play-offs.

Jordan’s football success comes as the region is plunging into chaos. Syria is riven by a murderous civil war, while Lebanon teeters on the brink of conflagration. Although Jordan remains calm, the effects of the Syrian war have been hard felt. Jordan’s trade with its neighbour has ground to a halt and up to 1,000 refugees flood into the country every day. Nearly 130,000 Syrians reside in Jordanian refugee camps, with hundreds of thousands more living elsewhere in the country.

Zaatari refugee camp in the north of the country has, in just 12 months, become Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Here there are people who had dreams and lives, but who are now left with nothing except the hopes of an unlikely peace in their own country. It is a remarkable place of heat, dust and blinding light, with people living in tents and shacks. But despite the oppressive conditions, there is fortitude and resilience. More than 3,000 businesses – selling everything from bread to wedding dresses – have sprung up, with one entrepreneur even opening a swimming pool.

On a daily basis there is little to do and boredom, particularly among boys, is a challenge. However, under Prince Ali’s chairmanship, the Asian Football Development Project has provided football pitches in the main camps.

“Football provides confidence, a sense of camaraderie, working as part of a team, and it also gives the sense of normalcy that people so desperately want,” said Aoife McDonnell of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which administers Zaatari. “Some of these people came for three months and have now been here a year. Football, I suppose, can take your attention for a period of time.’

Non-governmental organisations speak glowingly of the installation of pitches, saying they provide the impetus for other social activities among refugees, for whom inertia is as often as big a challenge as hunger, shelter and trauma.

Prince Ali speaks of “activating football’s conscience”, but the response of wealthier associations to the crisis
has been disappointing. The Norwegian government has donated €600,000 so far this year and UEFA has provided some footballs, but there has been little else. Ask about the huge transfer of wealth from the Gulf to clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, or the £941million paid by Asian nations to watch the Premier League on television for the next three years, and the frustration at this disconnect is palpable.

“There is no limit to our needs,” said Prince Ali. “It is not a donation we need, but I believe it should be a duty of every member association to help out.

“It has been a burden, but we always have open arms for those who need a safe environment and Jordan is a safe environment.”

Back in Amman the journey of the country’s footballers to the brink of the World Cup provides some comfort to a people who are acutely aware of their neighbours’ suffering and have experienced their own challenges with the influx of refugees.

“These are difficult times, dark times even,” confided Mahmoud, a waiter in one of Rainbow Street’s restaurants in Amman. “We all know people who have been affected in one way or another. But our boys…they bring us hope. We believe.”

By James Corbett