Lebanon's football team for the ongoing Asia Cup comprises players from Sierra Leone to Bulgaria to Norway, a striking mix of different nationalities who are trying to communicate better and build a sporting camaraderie.
It’s often said that every Lebanese person has friends and family all over the world and the national football team is certainly representative of that.
With an estimated six to 10 million people of Lebanese origin living outside the nation, which itself has a population of just four million (excluding a sizeable number of Syrians and Palestinians), it makes sense for the football team to scour the planet looking for those of Lebanese background to help bolster the local teams.
That search has led to a diverse group of players all coming together under the Lebanese flag to participate in the current Asian Cup in the UAE, having qualified for just the second time in their history.
The nation’s only previous appearance was when they hosted the competition back in 2000, with a team that consisted of five Lebanese-Brazilians. While there are no players in the current squad with South American links, there are plenty of others.
Goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil was born in Sierra Leone, midfielder Samir Ayass in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Adnan Haidar in Norway, Nader Matar in Ivory Coast, Bassel Jradi in Denmark, whilst defender Joan Oumari and forward Hilal El-Helwe were both raised in Germany, in Berlin and Hanover respectively.
Completing the exhaustive list are a pair of brothers, Robert and George Melki, who were born and raised in Sweden, with George telling TRT World that having players from so many different backgrounds only enriches the team.
“For me this is a normal situation because we have a lot of Lebanese in my city in Sweden and a lot of my friends also have this background so both my brother and I are used to it but equally we are so proud to represent Lebanon,” says George.
“Although we also have Syrian roots, my grandfather is Lebanese and two of my father’s sisters were born in Lebanon.
“No matter the situation of each player we always fight for Lebanon and when I go to the country and also here at this tournament with so many Lebanese fans in the UAE I can understand things and these fans all over the world give us so much power.”
Known as the Cedars, the team will need all of that power if they are to reach the knockout stage of the tournament having lost both of their opening matches to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Another player born outside of Lebanon, defender Oumari, notes that his country is in a vastly different situation to many others, given the lack of resources that they have compared to the wealthier nations at the Asian Cup.
“Lebanon is not like the other nations because we don’t have players who play in Europe or other strong teams in Asia with most of the players in Lebanon or if they are in Europe they are in lower leagues, not the top ones,” he says.
“I’m not saying that the players are bad or that the league is bad but it’s not the same as Europe or an Asian country such as Saudi Arabia that can bring good players with big money so for us in Lebanon it’s difficult to improve,” the 30-year-old tells TRT World.
The team captain, Hassan Maatouk, was born in Beirut and has spent most of his career in the country. He agrees with the sentiment that being able to call on such a large pool of players from outside the nation can only be positive in the long run.
“Really, it’s a good thing for us that we have some players from outside the country that can come and help us and as a team we want to show that we are unified and try to make a good result for our country,” he says.
“People in Lebanon love football so much so although we say sorry for not being able to win so far we want to make sure we can do that in the next match.”
That clash will be against North Korea in Sharjah later this week and a win could see the Cedars sneak into the knockout stages for the first time in their history and help put the nation on the regional map.
“We must stay together as a team and we can’t lose our control or think that we have no hope because we came here to give our best and we will never give up,” Oumari tells TRT World.
“We’ve come here to give everything for our country, for Lebanon and let’s see what happens.”
Oumari, born and raised in Germany, is one of several players who usually communicates with his teammates in English.
“Both of my parents are from Lebanon and every summer we went there when we were young and enjoyed time with our family but still I can speak only a little bit of Arabic because I grew up in Germany,” he explains.
“Now, I’m playing here in the UAE so I want to improve but they also speak a different kind of Arabic to that in Lebanon so I’m doing my best to understand.”
Captain Maatouk tells TRT World ahead of the decisive match with North Korea that even though some players in the team are struggling with the language and might not be as fluent in singing the anthem as others it won’t be a barrier for long.
“They will learn, I’m sure!”