Abbas Hassan would surely not have expected such a disappointing competitive debut for Lebanon’s senior side, with the up-and-coming goalkeeper conceding no fewer than four goals against United Arab Emirates in the final match of Round 3 of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
What is more, it had been Hassan’s costly mistake that had led to the first UAE goal. However, despite the 4-2 defeat, Lebanon still made it through to the decisive Round 4 of qualifying. And though the 27-year-old custodian’s display meant his relegation to the bench for Lebanon’s subsequent three matches, Hassan, who plays for Sweden’s IFK Norrkoping, made the most of his return to the starting line-up against Iran last September.
He was voted Man of the Match for an outstanding performance in the 1-0 home win, his country’s only victory so far in five Round 4 matches. Abbas, however, endured a less-than-happy outing against Iran on Wednesday as Lebanon crumbled to a 5-0 defeat, with Team Melli making the most their imposing Azadi Stadium home advantage to commence their push for 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying in imposing fashion.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Hassan recalled that UAE debacle and attempted to explain the reasons behind his uncertain performance that day: "The match was held in the UAE during the month of February, and as you know there is a big difference in terms of temperature between Sweden and the UAE,” he said.
“When I left Sweden it was around 15 or 20 degrees below zero, but when I joined up with the squad in the UAE it was 30 above. I had only three days to prepare with the squad and I could feel that I wasn’t on top form, which affected my performance during the game. Anyway, that match is in the past now and I've put it out of my mind."
Between that game and his heroic string of saves against Iran, Hassan sat out the first three games of Round 4. "It was a decision taken by the coach and I respect his opinion,” said the keeper. “I was keen to play but the final decision is up to the coach.”
Handed a second chance by coach Theo Bucker against the Iranians in his country’s fourth game of Round 4, he rose to the occasion on a day when only a win could keep Lebanon’s chances of reaching Brazil 2014 alive.
"We knew the game would be very tough. We could sense that during our pre-match preparations,” said Hassan, on the game won by a solitary strike from 32-year-old captain Roda Antar. “We performed really well and all the players were excited to get a positive result.
“Yes, I made some decisive saves, but there were ten other players alongside me running and battling hard,” he continued. “Without the efforts of all the players, particularly my defenders, I wouldn’t have had such a successful performance."
In a previous interview with FIFA.com, midfielder Antar was full of praise for his team-mate after that excellent showing against Team Melli. "He did a great job against Iran,” said the Lebanon skipper, who plays his football in China PR for Shandong Luneng. “His good performance encouraged us to redouble our efforts to win the match. A keeper like him can be decisive.”
In turn, Hassan also had words of praise for the experienced Antar: "I can’t find the right words to describe what he does for us on the pitch. He is just an outstanding player, just incredible. Simply having him with us on the field is enough to boost our morale and spur us on to win. Roda is unique, he is a real leader.
“He helped me a lot, especially after the defeat against the UAE,” Hassan continued. “He told me I would be criticized and to prepare myself for it. That’s exactly what happened. He was a big help and I am very grateful for all that.”
Hassan made his debut in Sweden’s top flight back in 2005 with Elfsborg, before loan spells at Denmark’s AaB and then current side Norrkoping, who he joined permanently in 2011. Having played for Sweden at youth levels, enquiries did come from the senior set-up, but the custodian preferred to pin his colours to the Lebanese mast – particularly after the positive results achieved by the Cedars in Round 3 of Brazil 2014 qualifying.
"When I first played for Sweden I was only 17, and I went on to play for the U-19s and U-21s,” said Hassan. “It was later on that Lebanon got in touch with me. They invited me to come to Lebanon and meet the squad and I really loved the idea of joining up with them."
Hassan is not the only Lebanese player who grew up in Scandinavia and decided to don the Cedars jersey. Norway-based Adnan Haidar, now at Stabaek, has followed a similar path recently, having shone at the West Asian Football Federation Championship in late 2012. And while the Hassan considers bringing in foreign-based players can add value to the team, he does not believe Lebanese clubs lack for talent.
“It’s important to have foreign-based guys in the national side, but there are a lot of quality players in Lebanon,” he said. “As Roda [Antar] has said previously, we must not simply ignore local-based players for the sake of those who play overseas. It’s very hard on the local lads when they lose their place [to a foreign-based player]. We shouldn’t rate the newcomers before having a clear idea about how good they are.”
And the new Lebanese hero has other long-term goals to achieve. “I would like to reach the highest level possible in my career. I still have time, because I'm only 27,” he stated, with confidence. “My goal is to play in a stronger European league, having now played for 12 years in Sweden. The next stage will be great for me.”