Lebanon's Melki brothers eye World Cup breakthrough

30 Aug 2021
  • Brothers Robert and Felix Melki play for Lebanon

  • They have helped the Cedars achieve some notable feats

  • The pair speak about the experience of playing together and their World Cup hopes

Over the years, the world of football has witnessed a number of brotherly pairings performing on the same pitch, even with their national teams at FIFA World Cup™ finals. This was the case during the ‘Miracle of Bern’ in 1954, in which Fritz and Ottmar Walter represented the victorious Germans, and at the World Cup in 1966, where the Charlton siblings made a substantial contribution to England’s victory. Other international appearances by footballing brothers include the De Boers (Netherlands), the Laudrups (Denmark), the Ayews (Ghana) and the Hazards, who both competed for Belgium at Russia 2018. A few months after that World Cup, Swedish-born brothers Robert and Felix Melki enjoyed a moment they had dreamed about their entire lives, when they played alongside each other in an international match, having received a call-up from the Lebanese Football Federation for a friendly against Uzbekistan. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, they talked about what it felt like to pull on their country’s jersey at the same time. “Our first international match together was a great experience,” said Felix. “Getting a call-up to the national team for a friendly provided me with a lot of joy; it was a big step in our footballing careers. And I was so proud to represent Lebanon, my country.”

Robert added: “It was so amazing to play in a national-team game together. For me, it was a great honour to be called up. It was a new and amazing experience – something we’ll never forget.” Since that memorable match in November 2018, Robert and Felix have helped Lebanon achieve a number of notable results, including qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, where they both starred in their team’s three group matches. They subsequently played a key role in propelling the Cedars to the third and final round of the Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Given the upturn in fortunes that the team has enjoyed since the emergence of the successful siblings, it is perhaps inevitable that they are now regarded by some as good luck charms. “It’s hard to say if we’ve brought some extra fortune, but there’s no doubt that we were a solid addition to the team, and that we tend to give our all and fight for the jersey,” said Felix, smiling. Robert, meanwhile, opted for a more forthright response to the question: “We’ve accomplished a lot since joining the squad, and that’s a positive thing, but I don’t think we’ve necessarily brought any luck. We’re the kind of players who give 100 per cent and always try to assist the team. We do that together, and that’s why we’ve been able to get this far in the World Cup qualifying campaign.”

고양종합운동장/ 2022 카타르 월드컵 아시아 지역 2차 예선/ H조/ 남자A대표팀/ 한국 vs 레바논/ 홍철/ 사진 윤경식

Robert, the elder of the duo, began his career in 2011 with Swedish side Syrianska, and he was joined there by Felix two years later. After spending a couple of seasons apart, they were reunited at another Swedish outfit, Eskilstuna, prior to Robert packing his bags for Qatar, where he has plied his trade since the end of the Asian Cup. During this time, Felix has mainly remained in Sweden, aside from a brief foray in Norwegian football. “Getting the opportunity to play with your brother is the greatest feeling,” remarked Robert, who, like Felix, is an admirer of Yaya and Kolo Toure. “We’ve played for the same club team two or three times in our career. And with the national team it always fills you with joy to have your brother alongside you, battling to achieve the same goal. “When we were kids, we dreamed of playing for Lebanon together. Representing your country is something that all footballers fantasise about. Now it’s happening, and we always try to perform to the best of our abilities. It’s a dream come true, really.” After taking part in the 2019 Asian Cup, they played in the second round of AFC qualifiers for Qatar 2022, and they have both been included in the list of players called up to a Dubai training camp ahead of their opening third-round match versus United Arab Emirates on 2 September. Despite the tough task that awaits them in Group A, where they will face Iran, Korea Republic, UAE, Iraq and Syria, the Melkis are keen to stress that the Cedars are not just there to make up the numbers. “We’re aware that there are good teams in our group, but we know we’re capable of getting good results,” said Felix. “We’re extremely hopeful, and we’re going to do everything we can to qualify.”

His older brother added: “It doesn’t actually matter which group we’ve been drawn in. The advantage for us is that most matches will be fairly close by. There won’t be long journeys to deal with, and we’ll be able to prepare well. It’ll be a case of 11 versus 11 for 90 minutes, and as we know, anything can happen then.” After the UAE match, Lebanon will travel to face Korea Republic on 7 September, in what is sure to be a testing fixture. The Melki brothers previously performed together twice against the Taegeuk Warriors in the second round, and a further meeting with these formidable opponents has provided them with additional motivation. “South Korea have a strong team,” said Robert. “We already came up against them a couple of times in the second round, and we did pretty well. We know how they play and vice versa. I hope we can give them a good game again. I don’t know if playing them is an advantage for us or them, because we know each other well – both teams are in the same situation.” If things go the way the Melki brothers are hoping for, then by the end of the qualifying campaign, Lebanon will have booked a spot at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in their history, something that Robert, who plays his club football in the host country, is especially excited about. “Playing in Qatar is fantastic, because there are a lot of new stadiums and facilities,” explained the 28-year-old defender. “The preparations for the World Cup really give you the feeling that it’s going to be a great event. Hopefully we can achieve our goal of qualifying to play here in Qatar, which is going to be a brilliant host.”