When Shandong Luneng’s Lebanese midfielder Roda Antar ran out on to the pitch for the away game at Shanghai Shenhua in late April, little did he know what fate would have in store for him, his club and country.
In the 76th minute of that Chinese first division match, the eighth of the season, the tall Antar leapt in the air to contest a high ball with Shanghai’s Bosnian midfielder Mario Bozic. Landing awkwardly on his return to earth, the Lebanon international had to leave the field of play on a stretcher.
Inflamed ligaments were the problem, with doctors estimating that the stricken player would be out of action for four to six weeks, causing him to miss a string of league games for Shandong and, crucially, the start of the final round of the Asian Zone qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
A hard act to follow
No-one is more disappointed about Antar’s absence than the player himself, though the news of his untimely injury was greeted almost with disbelief by Lebanon fans and the national team’s German coach Theo Bucker. After all, the 31-year-old midfield linchpin is one of the main reasons why the Cedars have come this far on the road to Brazil 2014.
His impact on the national side cannot be underestimated. In the third round of qualifying, the Lebanese lost both the games he missed: an opening 6-0 defeat to Korea Republic, and the 4-2 loss to UAE in their final match. In contrast he was present for the four games inbetween, during which the Middle Easterners collected enough points in the process to reach the fourth round.
A Bundesliga veteran with Hamburg, Freiburg and Cologne, Antar has also been sorely missed by his Chinese employers, who have failed to win any of the four games they have played since his injury.
Modest to a fault, however, Antar dismissed any connection between his absences and the poor results recorded by the teams he plays for. “You can’t put those defeats down to the fact I didn’t play because the team sometimes loses when I am there,” he told FIFA.com. “They also know how to win without me.”
That winless sequence continued last Sunday, when Lebanon kicked off round four of the Asian qualifiers for Brazil 2014 with a 1-0 defeat at home to Qatar, a result the watching Antar described as “unfortunate”.
“We acquitted ourselves well against a good Qatar side,” he said, praising his compatriots’ performance. “We didn’t take our chances up front, but I hope my team-mates can beat Uzbekistan on Friday and prove they can win without me.”
Also discussing his club, Antar had this to say: “Unfortunately, they haven’t won any of the four games they’ve played without me, which is sad. I’m undergoing treatment right now and I hope to get back to full fitness really soon to help the team finish the championship on a high note.”
A leader of men
As far as Antar is concerned, it is not enough just to wear the captain’s armband. Drawing on the vast experience he acquired in his nine seasons in Germany, he cajoles his team-mates and urges them on at every opportunity. “I always try to motivate the players,” said the skipper. “My presence on the pitch is even more important than off it because I have to lead my team-mates.”
Though the talismanic Antar will also miss Lebanon’s next two qualifying assignments, at home to Uzbekistan on Friday and away to the South Koreans next Tuesday, his team-mates are hopeful of picking up some good results and limiting the damage caused by his spell on the sidelines.
As Mohamed Ghaddar explained, however, there is no getting away from the fact that Antar will be missed: “His absence is a big blow for us because he’s not just our captain, he’s an outstanding player too. The national team and his club side have been hit hard by his injury and everyone’s said that he’s irreplaceable. Things would be a lot easier with him around.”
“We miss him because he’s a great player who has a lot to offer in attack,” said Lebanon keeper Ziad El Samad, sharing Ghaddar’s opinion. “I hope he comes back very soon and resumes his role as the leader of the team.”
Fellow international Hassan Maatouk, who plays for Ajman in the UAE, also spoke of the influential role Antar plays for the Cedars: “He gives us balance and we lacked that against Qatar and in the other matches we’ve played without him. He’s our driving force and he’s the link between each unit in the team.”
Indispensable or not, the absence of the skilful Antar has undoubtedly left his club and country with a very big hole to fill in their respective midfields.