The Lebanon u-19 National Team will begin its qualification campaign for the 2020 Asian Championship later today when they take on Syria in Tajikistan. Lebanon were drawn in Group C, which also has Tajikistan and Maldives, and the other two games will be played on the 4th and the 6th of October respectively. This group has been working together for a long time and will be hoping to qualify to the final tournament, which will take place in Uzbekistan in October of next year, something Lebanon hasn’t done since 2008.
Indeed, this group has been working together for the past year under the leadership of head coach Roy Abi Elias, who is Lebanese but lived for much of his life in the United Kingdom and holds a UEFA A Coaching Licence. This team participated in the ISF World Championship in Serbia in April where they managed to qualify for the quarter-finals ahead of Belgium, beating Chinese Taipei and hosts Serbia and drawing to Bulgaria and eventual winners Brazil before losing to Slovenia in the last eight, after the latter had beaten France in the groups. After consequent defeats to Greece and Qatar, the young Cedars were ranked 8th in the competition ahead of teams like France and Germany.
Since then, the team has undergone some changes in personnel, most notably with the addition of players from the diaspora during the summer. Goalkeeper Tarek Najia comes from the UK where he plays for fifth-tier side Bromely FC having previously attracted interest from none other than Chelsea and West Ham United. He started both recent friendlies against Armenia and has already shown exciting promise. German-based Mohamad Atwi is a midfielder who plays with simplicity and composure. Elias Aslan is a versatile attacking player who plays for IFK Stocksund, a Swedish fourth-tier side. Meanwhile Mahdi Hammoud is another midfielder who is based abroad, playing for Canadian side Victoria Highlanders.
These players bring professional experience and Western footballing styles to an already-talented group. The star of the domestic crew is Karim Mekkaoui, who missed the ISF CHampionship but was the emerging star for Racing’s first team last season, scoring a memorable Cup semi-final goal against eventual winners Ahed and winning the award for best young player of the season. The talented midfielder will be joined by teammates Jean Yamazian and Roberto Rosenborg. The latter was brought in as new addition during the summer’s training camp and impressed with goals, something which he has brought to Racing in this year’s u-19 League. Yamazian on the other hand was part of the midfield that held its own in Serbia, and is one of the few defensive-minded players in an offensive midfield.
U19 Group A leaders Ahed only have two players in the squad, them being holding midfielder Hassan Srour and winger Mohamad Masri who have both been in and out of the first team squad in recent months. Fellow Beiruti sides Shabab Sahel and Safa have also chipped in, with centre-back Jad Fliti and talented attacking midfielder Mohamad Haidar coming from the former and Talal Dandashli, who was the first choice goalkeeper in Serbia and who recently joined Safa from Nejmeh.
From the north, Tripoli SC have supplied two players. AbdelRazzak Dakramanji is an attacking left-back who was our joint topscorer in Serbia and Adam Hijazi has been brought in as an extra defensive option. And then there is Salam Zgharta’s Philippe Ayyoub, who captained the side in Mekkaoui’s absence for the two recent friendly matches against Armenia. Starting right-back Antonios Makary recently left Salam Zgharta and is currently with Zgharta-based fourth division side Al Fajr. He usually plays alongside Akhaa Ahli Aley’s central defender Saad Fayad, who has also been a mainstay in the team from the start. There were also two new additions to the squad, both from the south, with Tadamon Sour’s forward Hassan Hawila and Shabab Ghazieh’s goalkeeper Hassan Taki being brought in for the qualifiers.
But the club that is the most represented in this squad is Ansar, who are currently top of the U19 Group B, and who have four of their players in the squad in Tajikistan. Two of those players are actually members of the first team squad: Eyad Hammoud and Maxime Aoun. Maxime Aoun has been Fayad’s partner in central defence since the ISF tournament and is a big physical presence in the side. Eyad Hammoud recently joined after having left Sheffield Wednesday, where he won the u-18 English league and finished as his team’s top scorer. They will be joined by winger Cesar Abi Shakra and defender Ali Kenaan.
This group is strong but there are several names missing from the list for the qualifiers. Indeed, Lebanon has a lot of talent in the diaspora in this generation, with the two most notable players being Reda Khadra and Ramy Hajal. Khadra plays for Borussia Dortmund and recently scored for the first team in a friendly and Hajal plays for Heerenveen in Holland, and while both players were linked to the National Team they didn’t join because of their allegiances to Germany and Sweden respectively. Nejmeh players Ali Al Hajj, Issa Khreiss and Elie Keryakos couldn’t join for various reasons. And Ali Fouani, who was the team’s main source of goals upfront has moved to Spain and was therefore unable to join up with the team.
And while these players would all have added significantly to the quality of the team, they may have unsettled the harmony and team spirit that is one of this team’s main strengths, on account of the fact that they have been together for so long and have already played in a tournament together. This team has shown to have great fighting spirit and great desire and this will serve them well in the upcoming week as they face three teams in just five days. After all, qualification is the goal, and only first place guarantees a spot in the Asian Championship. The first game against Syria is a derby match and should be tense and tight. The second game against hosts Tajikistan will be the trickiest of the three matches as they will have the bulk of the side that qualified for the upcoming 2017 World Cup. The third game should be a comfortable victory against a weak Maldives side.
The poor structure in Lebanese football creates a lot of obstacles for our youth sides whose preparation are far from ideal, but there is optimism that this team can pull off a great achievement over the next week given the talent in the group and the results they have gathered since they started back in January. The results at the ISF Championship were particularly impressive and should give the team a lot of optimism and belief. The most important thing is that they believe and take to the pitch with confidence and then everything is possible.
A picture with my friend Tarek Najia after his debut back in July