When Youssef Chahine’s famous film The Return of the Prodigal Son was released in 1976, Lebanese football was immersed in its darkest hours, brought to a decade-long halt by the country’s bloody civil war.
Thankfully times have changed. More than 20 years on from the end of that conflict, the so-called Cedars (Lebanon's national team) have earned themselves a date with destiny, having made it through to the fourth and final round of the AFC qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
The Lebanese have been handed a tough draw in Group A, where they have Korea Republic, Iran, Uzbekistan and Qatar for company, prompting their German coach Theo Bucker to recall Mohamed Ghaddar and Zakaria Charara.
A tall order
Ghaddar formed part of the side that negotiated their way through the third qualifying round, where they also came up against the South Koreans, as well as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The 28-year-old striker had a big hand to play in Lebanon’s opening win in that section, scoring their first goal in the 3-1 defeat of UAE in Beirut last September, a result that set them on their way to second place in the group. He then slipped behind Mahmoud El Ali in the pecking order for the following games and was sent home by Bucker before the final game in the group, away to UAE last February.
Fate then took a hand as El Ali picked up a serious injury, while Ghaddar took his chance to shine with his Malaysian club Kelantan in the group phase of the 2012 AFC Asian Cup, scoring seven of their ten goals. Those exploits did not go unnoticed by Bucker, who has since brought Ghaddar back into the fold, much to the player’s relief, as he explained to FIFA.com: “Everyone wants to play for their country and I hope to do better than I did before.”
Asked about his ability to fill the gap created by El Ali’s absence, he had this to say: “Obviously Mahmoud’s going to be missed. You only have to look at his performances to realise that. I hope we’ll be able replace him, whether it’s me or another player. The important thing is to come in and do a job for the team.”
An international since 2005, Ghaddar has several caps to his name, and believes the current generation of Lebanon players has what it takes to pull off the impossible. “We’re all in it together and we all want to carry on this adventure,” he said. “We’ve achieved some great things and I feel we can go all the way, especially as we’re starting off this last phase at home in front of our own fans. That’s something we need to make the most of.
“We’re going to take each game as it comes,” he continued. “The opening game against Qatar is well within our reach. Everything’s been going great up to now and we need to take three points and set the tone for what lies ahead.”
Back from the wilderness
Team-mate Charara has been out of the reckoning for longer than Ghaddar, his last appearance for Lebanon coming in the second round of qualifying for Brazil 2014, under the tenure of Bucker’s predecessor Emile Rustom.
The 26-year-old Kuala Lumpur-based forward has been impressing onlookers in the Malaysian league in the meantime, doing enough to earn a recall for this Sunday’s group opener against the Qataris. Speaking to FIFA.com about his exile from the team, he said: “It’s been tough for me because every player wants to help their country to win. Even so, I’ve been following the games closely and I’m delighted we’ve qualified.
“It’s very important for me to be back in the side, which is now one of the ten best teams in Asia,” he added. “As a professional playing overseas everyone’s got their eye on me and I’m looking on this as a chance to make my mark.”
Like Ghaddar, Charara began his career with Beirut club Al Nijmeh, and believes Lebanon have a historic opportunity ahead of them and that nothing is impossible in football: “We’re not favourites but we’ve got a tremendous amount of motivation, and that’s helped us get this far. We can go all the way, but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves and we need to be completely focused. We’ve got a tough job ahead of us and we need to do even better than the previous round.”
On the same wavelength
Team-mates for club and country on numerous occasions, Ghaddar and Charara know each other well and share a room whenever the national side plays away.
The understanding between them was clear to see in last Sunday’s warm-up match between Lebanon and Oman, their first appearance together under Bucker, with Charara sending in a cross for Ghaddar to nod past Oman and Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi. “Zakaria’s more than an international team-mate. He’s like a little brother to me,” explained Ghaddar. “We stayed in touch all the time when we were in Malaysia. And now that we’re playing together I hope the team as a whole will benefit from the understanding between us.”
Charara feels a similarly strong bond for Ghaddar: “We’re more than just colleagues in the national team. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever met and we’ve got this great chemistry between us. I hope we can team up with the others and achieve something big.”
Lebanon have many obstacles to overcome if they are to make it to Brazil, but with Bucker in charge and Ghaddar and Charara restored to leading roles, the unfancied Cedars could yet be standing tall when the qualification race comes to an end.