Since debuting for Lebanon at the 2000 AFC Asian Cup as a 19-year-old, Roda Antar has served an integral role on the national team, featuring prominently in their past three FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaigns. While their previous attempts to qualify for the global showpiece ended in failure, the seasoned Lebanon captain is nonetheless optimistic that his country can open up a new chapter in Asian qualifying for Brazil 2014.
"We are truly underdogs in our section if you take a look at the calibres of our opponents," the Shandong Luneng playmaker told FIFA.com recently, citing also that their group features the likes of Korea Republic, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. "Korea Republic are among Asia's top teams and both Kuwait and UAE are much higher in the FIFA World Ranking than us. But still we are not ruled out and our team are more than capable of springing a surprise."
Lebanon sent shockwaves across Asia in their recent outing when the Cedars, under newly-appointed German Theo Bucker, stunned UAE 3-1 at home to clinch their first-ever victory over the formidable West Asians, who had just thrashed the side 6-2 in a July friendly. The result seems even more significant when taking into account that Lebanon had conceded six unanswered goals against Korea Republic in their group opener just four days prior to the triumph over UAE.
Antar, who excelled in his captaincy role throughout the game - netting the match-winner seven minutes from time, attributed the win to a revived spirit within the team. “We had a good match and all of my team-mates did their job well as we came from behind to defeat UAE. Our rivals may be a stronger side, but we played better as a team,” the former Hamburg and Cologne midfielder said.
Bucker the motivator
Antar paid special tribute to Bucker, a "new, old coach" in his words, who returned to the national job in August as a replacement for Emile Rustom, previously having been in charge of Lebanon on the road to Korea/Japan 2002. It was during that qualifying campaign that Antar lived up to his billings as Lebanon's rising star with a series of brilliant displays, notably scoring twice in an emphatic 4-0 victory over Sri Lanka.
"We had a great deal of good memories together before," he said of the 63-year-old German manager, who is married to a Lebanese wife. "I am very glad he is back to take care of the team's destiny. He is so familiar with Lebanon football and he knows about our mentality and culture well. So he is pretty much clear on how to get the best out of the players."
Admitting Bucker helped open the Germany door to him a decade ago, which led to an eight-year spell in the Bundesliga before moving to Shandong in 2009, Antar acknowledged the communicative role he played between the team and coach. He said: "That is part of my captaining duties and after serving the country for 11 years, I hope I can help the team with my experiences. We are a rather young team full of fledging players, but we have reached great cohesion among us all.”
With the team’s spirit evident in the camp, Antar is confident they can go on to pull off another upset against Kuwait in their next fixture in Beirut next Tuesday. “The Kuwaitis are among the group’s favourites and they drew 1-1 against Korea Republic in the last match. But boosted by our showing against UAE we now know what we are capable of and I hope we can continue our good form against them,” Antar said.
For the Lebanese faithful, the Kuwait fixture is likely to see the first link up of the campaign between two of the country’s biggest stars: Antar and his former Freiburg and Cologne team-mate Yousef Mohamad. Antar missed the opener against Korea Republic due to a visa problem and Mohamad was ruled out against UAE due to an injury. Now with both available to play, Antar is expecting to rediscover their long-standing partnership.
“Yousef is a very good player and he can play a key role in the backline, while I help with the midfield. After playing together with each other for so long, we will try our best to make our experiences count against Kuwait,” Antar concluded.