There aren’t many coaches in Asia’s youth football who can boast of having coached players who now play in the top leagues of English football. But Roy Abi-Elias, the head coach of Lebanon’s u-19 national team, who was actually born and raised in the United Kingdom, is at the head of an exciting generation of talented young Lebanese coaches.
Abi-Elias worked at the academies of professional clubs Wycombe Wanderers and AFC Wimbledon, where he was the head coach of the u-18 team, and counts among his former mentees the likes of current Bournemouth and former Liverpool winger Jordon Ibe, Hull City goalkeeper Matt Ingram and Nottingham Forest’s Matthew Cash.
“There is a number of players that I have worked with back in England (…) that are [now] playing between the Premier League, the Championship and League 1 and League 2 [and] I know what level is needed to play at that standard. I try to give the best I can for the local players here to be able to develop themselves to a similar level where they know if they do travel (…) they know what to expect”.
Roy Abi-Elias, who for a year was also an assistant coach and head fitness coach at Gloria Buzau, then in the first tier of Romanian football, is one of the most experienced coaches in Lebanon’s grassroots football scene. He is currently in his eighth year at BFA (Beirut Football Academy) after having started his Lebanese career at fellow grassroots academy Athletico, where he won their first u-15 league title in his debut season. And with the National team, he tried to use his experience to help develop the local players further, introducing fresh ideas, particularly regarding the training program. One of the fresh ideas he brought was his rotation of the captaincy, explaining that “it’s very important to give responsibilities to different players and give them the opportunity to lead the team [as] it’s part of their development”.
There was evidently an adaptation period when he first came to Lebanon. “I found it very difficult when I first came here (…), it was a completely new experience, a different culture of football”. But fast-forward to almost a decade later and Roy holds over 20 titles. This year alone he won both the u-12 national league with BFA and the Junior Varsity Football Cup with the Lebanese American University. He also led his BFA team to an impressive last 16 finish at the Gothia Cup in Sweden, beating some of the biggest professional clubs in Sweden along the way.
These are the types of achievements that made him a great candidate for the u-19 National Team job, which he took a year ago ahead of this year’s AFC qualifiers, starting with a trial to select players for the ISF Championship in Serbia. “The advantage I had was that I had worked with that particular age category with BFA [and] had won the national championship a few years back so I was very aware of what was available”.
The ISF Championship in Serbia was the first step in the preparations for the qualifiers and Lebanon put in an impressive performance, reaching the quarter-finals and beating hosts Serbia and Chinese Taipei on the way as well as recording a draw against eventual winners Brazil. The eighth-place saw them finish ahead of the likes of Belgium, France, and Germany.
They also hosted Oman for a couple of friendly games in April and trained throughout the summer, organizing a couple of internal camps and playing friendlies against the first teams of several first and second division clubs before traveling to Armenia for a camp where they played twice against the u20 Armenian National Team which had just hosted the European Championships.
” [The preparations] were pretty good to be honest although it would have (…) been more advantageous to prepare for longer (…) because we are competing against other National Teams that have been preparing for 3, 4 or even up to 7 or 8 years”. Indeed, Lebanon’s lack of long-term planning has been the downfall of their youth teams for many years and is the reason why we are yet to see a National Team fulfill its true potential.
However, a really positive change that came from this campaign was the introduction of the diaspora as a considerable pool for selection, following in the footsteps of the senior team which has recently seen the likes of Hilal El Helwe, the Melki brothers (Alexander and Felix), Joan Oumari and Bassel Jradi among others thrive after joining from abroad.
“We had roughly 7 or 8 diaspora players contact us initially but overall 5 came to Lebanon to try out in the summer”. Of these 5, four would be selected for the final squad: UK-based goalkeeper Tarek Najia, German-based midfielder Mohamed Atwi, Swedish-born forward Elias Aslan and former Bulgarian youth international striker Eyad Hammoud. Midfielder Mahdi Hammoud also joined the squad from Canada. The large presence of diaspora players was unprecedented for a Lebanese youth national team.
And according to Roy Abi-Elias, this was a big positive. “[Diaspora players] bring a different style of football with them. They play much quicker, their decision-making is much quicker. They are more physical as well [and] fitness-wise they are better prepared. [Finally] they add value by creating diversity within the culture of football and [their presence] certainly helped to educate the local players as well [as to] how they should behave and how they should perform”.
But while the benefit of integrating diaspora players into national team squads is undeniable, it brings with it important questions regarding balance and whether an overreliance on diaspora players could negatively affect the development of the local game. “It is extremely important to develop homegrown talent not only for the national teams but for the local teams and domestic competitions to prosper. However, I do believe that a mix of both local and diaspora players can help raise the standards (…) where players can learn from each other and change the mindsets of local players in understanding what it takes to play at the elite level”. Roy Abi-Elias also believes that the initial effort must come from the players who should “demonstrate their motivation and desire to represent Lebanon” and that the door is always open for foreign-based Lebanese players to join the Cedars.
The hope for the Cedars is that this campaign will set a precedent for future youth national team coaches to look abroad for talent and for Lebanese footballers playing around the world, those being very numerous especially in top European academies.
While there were a lot of encouraging signs during the preparatory stages leading up to the qualifiers, Abi-Elias and his staff came across numerous obstacles which ultimately affected their final performance. “Unlike other National Teams, we do not have a National Football Centre and we were limited in certain other resources as well.” Players’ commitment was also an issue, especially at that age, with the lack of professionalism in Lebanon leading many young footballers in the country to divert towards other careers once they get to their late teenage years.
Abi-Elias also lamented the behaviour of the clubs who made things more difficult for him and his staff. “Clubs can be more effective and help support the national team when we need players by making sure they are available and by prioritizing the national team instead of preventing [them] from training or playing with the national team”. Indeed, one of these clubs was Nejmeh, who despite winning last year’s u-19 league had no representative in the final squad for the qualifiers.
“[All of these issues] did hinder us but nevertheless we worked with what we had”. And after a draw against Syria, a narrow loss to hosts Tajikistan and a win against the Maldives, Lebanon finished in second place, leaving them with a chance at qualification for the final tournament as one of the best runners-up. “Overall I think it was a great success. Of course, Lebanon had high expectations: they want to qualify [and I myself] wanted to achieve that goal but (…) we were considered the third-best team in the group [according to the seeding] so the fact that we finished second certainly constitutes progress and will definitely improve our AFC ranking”.
“I’m extremely proud of the effort [the players] have put in; the discipline and the professionalism both on and off the field were outstanding”. Abi-Elias further emphasized on the disciplinary aspect, as Lebanon received only a single yellow card from three qualifying matches.
On a personal note, this was Roy Abi-Elias’s first venture into Asian football, and although he felt like the tight schedule of the AFC was an unnecessary inconvenience and made things more difficult for his side, he was pleasantly surprised with the quality on show. “I would certainly say that it’s a positive sign because the qualities and the strength of the opposition are not that dissimilar to what you would see in Europe”. Hosts Tajikistan, whose team contained several players from the u-17 team that were preparing for the World Cup the following month, impressed Abi-Elias particularly. ” The Tajikistan football federation has been working tirelessly for the last ten years to develop a new future and now you can see the product and the outcome of this in the next generation.”
“I [also] noticed when we were in Tajikstan that there are a lot of parks and kids playing everywhere for free, giving children the freedom and time and access to play as much as they want and hone in on their skills. This certainly helped boost the technical quality of the players over there”. Abi-Elias also took pleasure in seeing that they are building a new national stadium and have several football fields all next to each other, which will be used to form a national training centre.
Meanwhile, unfortunately, Lebanon still have a long way to go before it can think of competing at the top continental level. The first main concern which impacts Lebanon’s competitiveness at the international level is the lack of playing time that players get especially in the developmental phase. “Certainly clubs need to develop their youth programs [to a place] where kids are training at least four or five times a week instead of having them train once or twice a week and then stop training altogether when the championship finishes after three or four months and ask them to return only the following year”.
Clubs’ neglect of youth development has had a very serious consequence on Lebanese football. There’s an increasing gap between the grassroots game dominated by expensive pay-to-play academies and children from middle to upper-class families on the one hand, and the senior game characterized by low wages with a poor level of facilities and a lack of professionalism on the other. “There is a big gap between the expenses [families] are paying for [the best football development] and then finding themselves being offered the opportunity to play in the first division team locally but for the amount of 500 or 600 dollars a month (…): this is not a viable career”. Coach Abi-Elias explains that the best players from the academies “get lost in the system”, and the majority of the best talent in the country at ages 12 and 13 do not go on to play beyond their teenage years, therefore never playing for the senior national team.
However, it is not just the fault of the clubs. “We definitely need to increase the duration of the leagues, especially for older age categories. Currently, the leagues only last three to four months but that certainly needs to increase to at least nine months for the players to compete on a regular basis to hone in on their development”. “There should [also] be both an u21 league and even an u23 league”. Abi-Elias did acknowledge that logistical issues such as field and referee availability stand in the way of all these necessary reforms, proving once again how much needs to be done before Lebanon has a proper structure in place which allows for the development of football in the country.
The lack of financial resources is also an issue that directly affected Abi-Elias’s ability to prepare properly for the qualifications. “Most other national teams were traveling on a monthly basis to practice or compete (…) and this is something that I would certainly have added to our preparations had we had the opportunity or budget to do so”.
But the main issue is the mentality of the players in the country which has gotten too accustomed to being the underdog. “There is an inferiority culture in Lebanon and it’s not just in football; when they (the Lebanese) see people coming from outside to work here they expect them to be better”. This meant that one of Abi-Elias’s main challenges was to give his players the belief that they could achieve their targets. Playing in the ISF Championship against teams from all over the world and then going to Armenia helped show the players that they could compete at that level and this is something that is changing for the better in the country according to Abi-Elias.
“Academies are traveling frequently abroad to play in international tournaments so the future generations are competing against top European or international teams and they learn very quickly what the level is expected of them and understand that they can compete. They are actually achieving great results at the youth level abroad so I think the next generation (…) will certainly be filled with more confidence and feel that they can compete at the international level”.
In general, Abi-Elias seemed to be optimistic about the future of the game in the country, insisting that he has seen considerable progress since he first came to Lebanon around a decade ago.
“[When I first came], I could see that there was a lot of work to be done here in the country regarding youth development. You could see there was neglect for football in general and youth football in particular. (…)Since [then], a lot of academies have opened and started working on developing youth players and facilities have improved significantly. [Ten years ago] there were barely any full-size fields and now you can see quite a lot of them particularly in Beirut”.
“Leagues have been organised; we now have the Copa Academy and we also have the Lebanese national leagues for age categories ranging from 9 years old upwards and this has certainly increased competition which was very much missing in the country (…) and that has improved the quality and the level of football”.
Abi-Elias enjoyed his experience with the national team and feels as though it has been very beneficial regarding his personal development.
” I saw a different approach to football and a different style of play on the Asian continent and I will certainly use that to continue improving myself as a coach”. And although he ultimately failed his objective of qualifying for the Asian Championship, he maintains that it was considered a successful campaign and that this generation has a big future ahead.
“At this moment in time with the current situation in the country, the team has been put on hold. But I believe the FA are looking to create an u-23 squad for the 2021 qualifiers and if they do so I would expect some of the players from the 2001 category to be called up”.
Regarding his own future, Abi-Elias was keen on continuing to work with the federation.
“If I am called up to work with any of the [national youth] teams, I would continue to serve with honour and pride”.
However, he was also clear on being open to new challenges, possibly even entering the senior game.
“When working at youth level, there is a personal satisfaction as you see the players grow and develop their skills to potentially make it at the professional level. Being part of this journey can be intrinsically rewarding. However, (…) I am always seeking new challenges so if the opportunity came I would certainly consider working with senior first division clubs whether locally or abroad”.
Seeing Lebanese coaches working abroad is generally very rare and Abi-Elias, a big advocate for travelling and trying different cultures, believes that this has a negative effect on the game in Lebanon.
“Having worked in three different countries, the experience and knowledge that I have gained have been invaluable to my personal development as a coach. Unfortunately for local coaches, it is quite difficult to seek opportunities abroad (…) and this sadly reflects on the local coaches’ capabilities”.
But once again, Abi-Elias was optimistic about the future, saying that this is gradually changing as local coaches have been benefitting massively from foreign coaches who have come to Lebanon to work either at clubs or with the National Team. A good example of this is the success of Ahed head coach Bassem Marmar, who was mentored by the German Robert Jaspert.
“Bassem Marmar is doing an extremely fantastic job with the first team at Al Ahed, [winning] the league on numerous occasions, the AFC Cup for the first time ever and even prior to that he had developed most of these players that you now see in the first team as head of youth development at Ahed. (…) Ahed’s recent success on the continental stage is a promising sign that Lebanon is making strides in football terms and I am positive that as local coaches continue to develop and improve so will the level of teams and players alike and this will reflect on our national teams in the long term. “