Lebanon had imagined a rather different start to their qualification campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ than the bitterly disappointing 1-0 home defeat to Uzbekistan, as team captain Roda Antar confirmed to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
"Obviously, it was not the result we were looking for at the beginning of a major championship," he said. "We knew Uzbekistan would be no pushovers, yet we played poorly in the first half and couldn't put our chances away in the second."
Defeat in their opening Group 4 match of Asian qualifying means that the upcoming games against Singapore and Saudi Arabia are already looking like crucial fixtures. The Saudis, runners-up in the AFC Asian Cup 2007, began their campaign with a 2-0 home win against Singapore, themselves last year's ASEAN champions.
The Lebanese captain sees the trip to Singapore as the really big one. "The Saudis are a really strong side, so we're focussing on Singapore. I don't know that much about the opposition," he added, "but we've done well in the past against teams from east Asia, so we're looking to come away with a win."
Lebanon will certainly need the three points in Singapore to realise Antar's dream of FIFA World Cup qualification. "We want to qualify for South Africa 2010," said Lebanon's record-breaking marksman, "but we're taking one game at a time. We're not looking beyond the next qualifying round at this stage."
Qualification for South Africa 2010 would be far and away the greatest achievement in the Lebanese Football Association's 74-year history, but Antar and Co. have not exactly set the world alight so far. Apart from featuring in the AFC Asian Cup 2000 (as host nation), they have yet to take part in a major championship.
Antar, however, sees self-confidence as the key to the future: "We've had our chances in the past, but we didn't take them," he continued. "We just have to believe in ourselves more. I keep trying to tell the young players not to let themselves be phased by the media's opinion of their abilities. Of course we have to respect our opponents, but we shouldn't be afraid of them."
A patient approach
Antar was born in Sierra Leone and has also played for Hamburg at a high level, so he is aware that success will not come overnight. "We've had a few internal problems in recent years. We need to show lots of patience and discipline so we can get down to the hard work of preparation in peace."
The 27-year-old, who was runner-up at the AFC Footballer of the Year awards in 2004, is confident that two of the younger Lebanese players have got what it takes to make an impact on the international stage: "Abess 'Onica' Atwi and Amer Khan are great talents, and I'm confident that they'll serve the Lebanese national team well in the future."
The midfielder, who plays for German second division team FC Cologne, predicts a bright future for the first of the two rising stars: "Atwi could make it in the second or even the first division in Germany, England or in one of the other major footballing countries."
Antar himself made the transition to top-class football some time ago. Having started his professional career with FC Tadamon Sur in Lebanon, he first went to Hamburg on loan in 2001. After failing to establish himself with the north German side, the player opted for a free transfer to SC Freiburg in 2003, where local fans quickly took him to their hearts and made him something of a cult figure. His impressive tally of 26 goals in 98 appearances soon attracted the attention of promotion-chasing Cologne, who secured Antar's services in the summer of last year.
While his form has been a little inconsistent at his current club, he has long been considered one of the leaders in the national team. "I had no ambition to captain the side five years ago," he recalls, "but after talking to my brother, I realised it was time to rise to the challenge."
Listening to the player speak now, it is evident how much he has grown into the role since taking that decision. "I never would have thought how much I'd enjoy being captain of this team. Of course it's a great responsibility looking after the younger players, but you gain a lot in mutual respect," Antar said with obvious pride.
If Roda Antar continues to take his job so seriously, encouraging young players, leading by example and serving as an ambassador for his country, his dream of seeing Lebanon at their first FIFA World Cup finals might just become reality.