'No-one believed in Lebanon': how West Asian minnows are thriving ahead of Caltex Socceroos clash

It might not be a name to strike fear into the hearts of Australian fans, but it would be folly for the Caltex Socceroos to underestimate Lebanon when the pair meet on November 20.

Football is thriving like never before for the West Asian nation, who are reaping the benefits of heavy reform at the start of the decade.

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Lebanon have been to just one AFC Asian Cup and will not enter next January’s tournament with serious designs on winning the thing, but they will have a great chance to continue their remarkable success story.

THE HISTORY

The Cedars were languishing at 155 in the FIFA World rankings as recently as March 2017. As of August’s updates the side are 79, and it’s been two years and five months since they last lost an international fixture.

There’s still a long way to go, and it’s been a long and significant overhaul of the country’s infrastructure, training and selection processes. Lebanon do not have their own national stadium or training camp, and all preparation they do for the Asian Cup will be out of the country.

But they will enter UAE in January – and firstly against Australia in Sydney in November - on the crest of a wave.

There are several factors behind Lebanon’s recent upsurge that can be traced back as far as the reign of Lebanese-German head coach Theo Bucker.

Bucker was the man in charge when the Caltex Socceroos defeated them 3-0 in Beirut back in 2012 and is responsible for both in rallying support on the home front and instilling the professionalism integral to the team’s current standing.

Lebanon

THE RECRUITMENT

Almost the entire Lebanon squad that hosted Australia six years ago plied their trade in their home country, but following on from Bucker’s impact the Lebanese Football Federation have begun expanding their horizons to both combat an ageing squad and to stop eligible talent slipping through the cracks.

The country has started reaching out to players from the Lebanese community in countries like Germany, Colombia and Denmark – and plans are in place for current coach Miodrag Radulović to persuade several Lebanese Australians to join the cause when they touch down later this year.

One of the first and most notable examples of this is Swedish-born goalkeeper Abbas Hassan, who was handed his debut back in 2012 but up until 2017 had spent his entire club career in Scandinavia.

But more recently is the example of promising 23-year-old forward Hilal El-Helwe. Born in Hannover and formerly a Wolfsburg reserves product, El-Helwe was handed his debut at 20 years old - another is Michigan-born winger Soony Saad, a former United States youth international.

Hilal El-Helwe Lebanon
Hilal El-Helwe in action for German club Hallescher FC.

Likewise for central defender Joan Oumari, who made a full appearance as the J.League's first-ever Lebanese player on last week, and was born in Berlin.

THE CAPTAIN

Despite a surge in overseas-based Lebanese players, the team’s most valuable asset is still arguably a member of the old guard.

Inspirational captain, all-time leading goal scorer and left-sided attacker Hassan Maatouk is a 31-year-old veteran of 64 appearances who made his international debut in 2006.

He underlined his value to the side during the team’s AFC Asian Cup qualification, where he dragged the team over the line at times. He scored five goals in six Group B matches – ranging from stunning late equalisers and penalties. He also hand a hand in almost everything they did that was good, and registered three direct assists throughout qualification.

As the side’s genuine talisman, he has come to embody the newfound grit and spirit of the Lebanese team and although the three time Lebanese player of the season might be entering the September of his career he is still fundamental to the team’s attack.

While Maatouk will carry most of the goalscoring burden, he’ll be supported by the likes of El-Helwe. He’s served as the team’s target man throughout qualifying in a selfless role who scored a 90th minute winner against Malaysia in Group B qualifying.

Hassan Maatouk Lebanon
Maatouk has the potential to be a real danger man against Australia.

THE BOSS

Lebanon’s Montenegrin head coach Miodrag Radulović has been at the helm since 2015 and is credited with nurturing the team’s recent success.

He’s got a policy of introducing new talents like Hilal El-Helwe and Soony Saad into the side and allowing these youthful attackers to support the older heads.

Radulović fielded 4-2-3-1 during Asian Cup qualifying, but has been known to shift for five at the back against more fancied sides. It will not be surprising if he does so against the Caltex Socceroos.

“We have a great spirit and this is because I have worked a lot on the psychological side of the game with the players,” Radulovic recently said in an interview.

“I talk a lot with them individually and try to push them to have confidence. You can see this has worked. No-one believed in Lebanon when qualifying started but we won the group.”