The Lebanese national team’s performances in the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™ have given football in the country a real boost, with a number of Lebanese players invited to ply their trade overseas as a result.
Lebanon’s 3-1 dismantling of United Arab Emirates last September is a case in point. The display encouraged three of UAE’s top-flight clubs to successfully bid for the services of a trio of Lebanese stars with defender Yousef Mohamed joining Al Ahli Dubai and talented midfielders Hassan Maatouk and Abbas Atwi going to Ajman and Dubai respectively.
On February 29, Lebanon and UAE are due to meet again in the third round of the Asian qualifiers. FIFA.com caught up with the talented trio to discuss Lebanon’s chances in the upcoming clash.
A tough contest
All three agree that this match is not only sure to be a tough challenge, but that its outcome is crucial to Lebanon’s qualifying campaign. Currently occupying second spot in Group B, with leaders Korea Republic just ahead of them on goal difference, a draw against UAE would be enough to send Lebanon into the fourth and final round of the Asian qualifiers for the first time in their history.
“The UAE game will be decisive for us,” said defender Yousef Mohamed, “but it won’t be easy. We must never treat any of our opponents lightly. That said, we’ve got an experienced technical staff led by coach Theo Bucker and he knows just how to approach each game.”
The experienced defender continued: “UAE have no chance of qualifying and so they’ll be playing with no pressure. That will make it harder for us, plus the fact that they will be looking to make up for a qualifying campaign in which they lost all their games.”
But the UAE game is not the be-all and end-all for Lebanon’s qualifying hopes. If Kuwait fail to beat Korea Republic in the group’s other game, Lebanon’s fourth round place will be booked before they take the field against their Middle East opponents.
Hassan Maatouk, for one, is well aware of the benefits of this arrangement: “Of course it works in our favour, because the match between Korea Republic and Kuwait finishes before ours. That gives us a better chance of qualifying and means that when we take the field for our game we know just what we have to do. The outcome’s in our hands.”
Abbas Atwi believes that Lebanon have to go for the win regardless of the other game’s result:
“All we’re thinking about is not losing our game,” he said. “We have to get the three points whatever happens between Korea Republic and Kuwait.”
There can be no doubt that the trio's experience of competing in the UAE league could prove invaluable. Yousef Mohamed has returned from injury to become a lynchpin of the Al Ahli defence, Hassan Maatouk has scored an impressive nine times in 14 outings with Ajman, while Abbas Atwi has also made his mark, knocking in the winning goal in Dubai Club’s encounter with Al Wasl.
Just qualifying for the fourth round would be a feather in the cap of Lebanese football, because it would be a first.
Mohamed is enthusiastic as he describes his time in the Gulf state: “Taking part in the league here has given us a better idea of the quality of the UAE’s players and that will be invaluable come February. At the same time, the UAE national side has undergone a lot of changes since we beat them in Beirut, which makes things a little more complicated.”
For his part, Atwi believes that both he and his two colleagues have a responsibility to pass their newfound knowledge on to their teammates.
“We’ve played in the UAE,” he explained, “and that’s going to benefit us. We’ll have a better idea of their players and style, because we’ve faced them in the league. We’ve got to pass this kind of stuff on to the other guys so they can go into the game without any fears or worries.”
Maatouk is more cautious. For the midfielder, their experience in the UAE could be a double-edged sword.
“It could be a positive thing,” he began, “when it comes to evaluating the quality of the UAE talent pool, but then again, they now have a better idea of our strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day our team depends on professionalism to get us the three points and continue our World Cup campaign.”
A dream come true?
While this is the first time abroad for the midfield duo, veteran defender Youssef Mohamed is playing overseas for the third time in his career, having previously turned out for German outfits Freiburg and Cologne. These days Mohamed is focused on the national side’s fortunes and the dream of qualifying for the finals of the FIFA World Cup.
“In the past,” said the 31-year-old, “when I was out of the side, I used to dream of achieving something for my country. Just qualifying for the fourth round would be a feather in the cap of Lebanese football, because it would be a first.”
“We have to keep the good work up,” he went on, “starting with the Lebanese Football Federation at the top, then the coaches and finally the players. That’s how we will move forward. If we make it to the fourth round then no one will dismiss our chances of going all the way. Nothing’s impossible in this game, so long as you work hard and do what you’re supposed to.”
Mohamed rounded things off by speaking about the Lebanese national team set-up: “The coaching staff are familiar with the way we Lebanese think and have experience of Lebanese football. That’s a big help to us, no doubt about it. Then there are the players. We have some excellent youngsters in Lebanon who just need the chance to prove themselves. I hope these guys get the chance to play abroad and represent their country in the future.”
Yousef Mohamed is thinking big then, but much of his hopes for the national side and Lebanese football in general rest on the results of next month’s decisive clash with United Arab Emirates.