If the Tall Blacks win in Wellington today, they will qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. What better way to do that, than against Syria? A team that proves how truly global this competition is, and a team that fights to keep the game alive in their country.

Team Syria arrived in Wellington yesterday afternoon, ahead of the FIBA World Cup Qualifier against the Tall Blacks at 3pm today. Its yet another away game for Syria, in a list of fixtures that does not feature one at home. The Syrian national team plays all home games in neighboring Lebanon, due to the Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2011. The Syrian team Captain and point guard, Sharif Al Osh, says he looks forward to the day they can host the Tall Blacks in Syria.

"I hope we will. It will give us a chance to have our fans support and to play on our court. That will be a little bit different. That will give us a big push for the team."

From news coverage beamed back to New Zealand screens since 2011, its hard to imagine basketball opportunities in Syria. Yet Al Osh says the players and the Syrian Basketball Federation have managed to somehow continue playing, despite the turmoil.

"Basketball in Syria was developing from year to year before the war. Then, when the war started, we lost a lot of players - hundreds of players left the country. The league became very weak with only two or three clubs left. We had five years when the league was very weak. Maybe we would have three to four games a year at most."

Al Osh says only two cities managed to keep basketball alive, Damascus and Aleppo. According to Al Osh, the situation has improved and some basketball teams are even managing to pay players as glimmers of professional basketball emerge in the country.

"In the last two years, the situation has become better and most other cities have started to play basketball. We have now six clubs starting to pay for players, so we have chance for more players to be in the national team in the future."

Every player in the Syrian team currently lives and plays in Syria. Not one is based abroad, or playing for an overseas club. Nearly all have day jobs. Al Osh is an Accountant by training and now works as a "Budget Holder" for an NGO - the International Medical Corps.

"Most of us are professional players in Syria, but it's still not professional 100 percent, so some have jobs. I have my work. I finish my work at five oclock, then I go to practice. Some players are coaching in private schools, and some of them just play basketball."

Three of the team that will play the Tall Blacks on Sunday have already played in New Zealand. Tarek Aljabi, Sebouh Kharadjian and Hani Adribe all competed in Auckland at the 2009 Under 19 World Cup. There, they played the Junior Tall Blacks when a young Rob Loe scored 25 points and New Zealand won 93 to 75. Al Osh says those three players speak fondly of that visit.

"They loved the city, the country and it was a good experience for them. It's a World Cup too, so it's a very good experience."

During these FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, which began in November last year, the Syrian team has faced up to a mammoth challenge. With only three games left, Syria are unlikely to qualify for next years World Cup, but they have given it a hell of a shot. They not only defeated India twice in the Round One of the Qualifiers, but also demonstrated their self-belief at the last years FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. Syria lost their opening game to Jordan 68-66, and then fell only 81-79 to China in the qualification for the quarter-finals clash. Al Osh says the team has used these Qualifiers as an opportunity to gain experience and learn from playing stronger teams.

"For us, our target was to qualify from the first group to the second group, and we did this after we won against India. So we are now in Round Two.

"Now we are trying to let the younger players get experience from these high level games. But still, I don't think that our strategies and plans are clear. I think we have to work more on this to be better in the future."

And the future is something Al Osh believes will be better. He says Syria is stabilizing to an extent and that the opportunities for basketball will hopefully improve.

"I can tell you, in general, most of the cities are safe. But, in some rural cities, there are still problems. But now, it's okay, most of Syria. There is some [regions], like two or three have some risky issues. But it becomes better every year. And now, the main [regions] are safe, like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama. We have everything there. If you go to a football game, you can't believe that's in Syria. You can see the place is full, there's no place to sit, and everything is normal now."

That said, when asked about life under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Al Osh prefers to move on.

"People look at this in different ways. Some of them say he is okay. Some of them say he is not okay, and it's different from person to person. In the situation in Syria, there is no right and wrong. It's very complicated. It's more complicated than you can imagine. For me, I dont want to say anything about this."

Fair enough, its understandable that Al Osh wants to stick to discussing basketball - that is why he is here in Wellington, where a tough test awaits. For this afternoons match, the Tall Blacks are favourites. They won 107-66 against Syria last September in Beirut. Al Osh is well aware of their underdog status, but says its not something that comes into this teams mindset.

"New Zealand is on a different level to the Syrian team, but we are not going to play like we are going to lose. We're going to fight for the game and try to win. It's not easy. We dont have our home games because we don't play in Syria, and weve travelled a long way to now play in New Zealand against a very good team."

The Tall Blacks will see a new player step into that arena. Shea Ili has returned to Auckland to devote time to being a Dad to his newborn daughter. Derone Raukawa replaces him at point guard. The 19 year-old Brisbane Bullet and debutant Tyrell Harrison also comes in, while Tohi Smith-Milner steps aside for this one.

Despite the Tall Blacks being viewed by bookies as an overwhelming favourite, Coach Henare respects this Syrian team as one that will never back down.

"We know they play hard. They fight for everything, they fight on every possession.

"The plan is to see a lot of what we saw in Christchurch and play with the intensity and desire, especially at the defensive end. We want to put them under pressure for 40 minutes and create opportunities at both ends of the floor."

Whatever this afternoons result, people attending this game will witness a truly international sport in action. The Tall Blacks have played teams from all around the world: the Americas, Africa, Europe and of course most recently Asia, which includes the Middle East. Through FIBAs basketball competitions, foreign places seem more familiar, as do the people; people who share a love the game. For players like Al Osh, who has played basketball his whole life, the sport is a language we all speak. And that love of global basketball just might become all the more stronger today for New Zealanders - if the Tall Blacks win this game, they will qualify for the 2019 World Cup and will lock in their rightful place among the 32 teams that will compete for Naismith Trophy.

Tickets for the Tall Blacks v Syria game in Wellington can be purchased at
www.Ticketmaster.co.nz.

- This story has been automatically published using a media release from Basketball New Zealand