Some players, it seems, were born for the big occasion. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lebanon captain Roda Antar is one such individual.
Indeed, the 32-year-old midfielder has proved to be the man to make the difference on more than one occasion, as Lebanon remain in contention to claim an unlikely qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, as one of Asia’s four representatives. In Antar's absence due to a visa problem, the Cedars conceded six unanswered goals in Korea Republic in the previous round's opening match, a result which seemed to leave the Lebanese as little more than rank outsiders.
Such thoughts, though, were soon dismissed upon the Shandong Luneng man’s return. Skippered by Antar, the west Asians pulled off a series of surprises, including a stunning 2-1 home win against Korea Republic, to seal their first-ever place in the final round. More recently, the Lebanon talisman scored the only goal against Iran to put their campaign back on track, having missed the opening three matches due to injury.
"The victory is very important for us," the former Freiburg and Cologne playmaker told FIFA.com. "It was our first win against Iran so it came as a big morale-booster for us. It was also our opening triumph in the final round which keeps us still in the contest. As for me, it was my first action with my country after a three-month layoff, and I am excited to have scored the match-winning goal."
The team have been making consistent progress all these years and we are getting stronger from game to game. In a sense the current squad should be the best national team in history.
With just a point from three games, Lebanon entered the Iranian contest knowing three points were a must if they were to maintain realistic hopes. The visitors largely dominated, but Antar broke the deadlock with a header on 27 minutes and goalkeeper Abbas Hassan pulled off a series of brilliant saves as the hosts sealed an unlikely victory.
"Hassan did quite a nice job between the posts against Iran," said Antar in tribute to the Lebanese shotstopper. "His performance obviously encouraged us to do whatever we could to win the game. A goalkeeper like him can largely enhance a team’s chances to win. We also owed thanks to the fans and media alike, both of whom have provided us with support throughout the campaign so far."
Lebanon's ongoing bid to reach Brazil marks Antar's fourth continental qualifying, having featured in his country's campaign for the past three FIFA World Cups. Although his side failed on each occasion, Antar and Co have turned into a genuine force on the Asian scene.
"I have been with the national team since 1998 and have been involved in our attempts for the past three World Cups," said Antar. "The team have been making consistent progress all these years and we are getting stronger from game to game. In a sense the current squad should be the best national team in history."
Antar attributed his side’s achievements to their fighting spirit. He said: "Our fans cheer for us not only for the results we've got, but also for the spirit which carried us through many key battles. After all, we are not Japan and Korea Republic who can count on their star-studded line-ups. We may not boast many overseas-based stars, but we play with our hearts so we are able to topple big opponents."
Lebanon faces an uphill battle in Qatar on 14 November in their next outing, with victory potentially lift them into the section's top two. With so much at stake, Antar was reluctant to make predictions.
"I never predict results and assess chances, because I think a player should always get prepared for the games ahead by maintaining his form. We should enjoy every game and do our best. If we continue our good run like this, perhaps after two or three games the qualifying picture could be clearer.
"As for my captaincy role, I see the job as more responsibility than pressure. It is my duty to do my job well and try to win matches alongside my team-mates. And pressure can be turned into encouragement if you deal with it properly, because people under pressure often show their best.”