BEIRUT

Football

What is it about Lebanon and German football?

BEIRUT: What is it with the Lebanese and German football? Though you’ll struggle to find a single Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund shirt among the hordes of Barcelona and Real Madrid supporters here, it is with Germany that the Lebanese game has the strongest links. Some of the connections are obvious.

National team coach Theo Bucker, despite the “in-law of the Arabs” and “half-Lebanese” nicknames, is German born and bred. And while he has long coached in the Middle-East, it was during a successful playing career in the German Bundesliga, first with Borussia Dortmund and later at MSV Duisburg and Schalke 04, that Bucker learned the footballing philosophy that has served him so well as a coach.

Yet the links between Lebanon and German football extend beyond the national team boss. The two biggest stars of the Lebanese national team, captain and midfield general Roda Antar, and sometime skipper Youssef Mohammad, both enjoyed productive spells with German clubs SC Freiburg and FC Koln, with Antar also completing a short loan spell at Hamburg. Though neither player still plays in Germany, they certainly left their mark; in addition to serving as Koln captain for the 2010/11 season, Mohammad also managed to earn himself a small piece of unwanted fame when he was awarded the fastest red card in Bundesliga history, just 92 seconds into the start of that same season.

More importantly, their time in Germany will have taught Antar and Mohammad what few Lebanese players ever get the chance to learn: how to handle the pressure of playing in front of tens of thousands of fans, week in week out. While most of their fellow countrymen were stuck at home playing in front of rows of empty seats, Antar and Mohammad were mixing it with the best at Bayern Munich’s 70,000 capacity Allianz Arena, and feeling the weight of their own fans’ expectations at Schalke’s 60,000 seater stadium in Gelsenkirchen. With those experiences behind them, it’s little wonder that the two players have been able to raise their game when the pressure has been at its most intense over the course of Lebanon’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

To their tale can now be added that of Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Amin Younes, who looks set to enjoy an even more successful Bundesliga career than the two stars of the Lebanese national side. At Hannover earlier this month, Younes came off the bench to make his senior debut for the former UEFA Cup winners, becoming, at just 18 years old, one of the youngest players to have played for Gladbach in the club’s illustrious history.

Born in Dusseldorf to a Lebanese father and German mother, Younes’ path to the top certainly took a different course to that of Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad. After signing with Monchengladbach’s academy in his early teens, Younes has gone on to represent Germany at all youth levels from under-16 to under-19. Having been included in the squad for the Germany under-19 team’s friendly against the Czech Republic Tuesday, and given his recent elevation to the Gladbach first team squad, it would come as a surprise if Younes didn’t make it to this summer’s under-19 European Championships in Estonia.

Having progressed through the German age-group sides, Younes would appear set on an international career with his native country. And yet, with the prospect of Lebanon qualifying for Brazil 2014 becoming ever more real, there remains a small chance that the youngster might be persuaded to opt for his fatherland at international level. When contacted by The Daily Star’s Sports Weekly earlier this week, Lebanon coach Theo Bucker seemed eager to get in touch with Monchengladbach and find out more about the player and his ambitions.

Admitting that he’d heard about Younes’ debut for Monchengladbach but didn’t know much about the player, Bucker said he’d use one of his contacts at the club to find out whether there is any prospect of the player becoming available for selection for the final round of World Cup qualifying, which begins in June with the visit of Qatar to Beirut.

Having already given first caps to foreign-born players Abbas Hassan and Nader Matar, the Lebanon boss has shown that he is not averse to picking players who were born outside of the country, provided that they are Lebanese-qualified and possess the right attitude and the ability to improve the side. When contacted by The Daily Star, Bucker was keen to restate his policy concerning the selection of foreign-born players.

“I have always said that we are open to bringing in players from outside Lebanon, if they have a Lebanese passport and the quality to improve the team,” he said.

Since Lebanon’s surprise 2-1 victory over South Korea last November, the Lebanon coach has been inundated with recommendations for Lebanese-qualified players from all over the world. The task of sifting through these recommendations and assessing whether to make further enquiries remains ongoing, as Bucker explained.

“The situation is this: I have a file on my desk with the names of 35 players from all over the world,” he said. “Everyone is telling me this player is good, that player is good. I have no reason to believe that they aren’t good, but it’s a difficult task. We are looking at players from all over the world: from Germany, France, Africa ...”

With the Lebanese diaspora estimated at close to 20 million people, it’s no wonder that so many foreign-born players should suddenly put their hands up for selection now that the national team is enjoying some success. Yet of all of those it’s Amir Younes, a player that Lebanon might not be able to lay its hands on, that looks to have the most promising future in the game.

Speaking to local German newspaper Westdeutsche Zeitung after Younes’ promotion to the first-team squad back in February, Gladbach coach Lucian Favre highlighted what he sees as the player’s special qualities.

“Amin has great quality in one-on-one situations, and can score goals,” said the Swiss coach, suggesting that Younes plays in a similar style to Lebanon’s wide-men Hassan Maatouk and Ahmad Zreik.

For his part, Younes seems to possess a maturity lacked by so many talented young players. Speaking to the official Bundesliga website after his debut, Younes was eager not to seem like he was getting ahead of himself.

“Obviously I’d love to get some more games but that’s up to the coach,” he said. “I’m not putting myself under pressure, though. I’m just going to try to put myself in contention in training and enjoy every minute I’m allowed to play.”

If he is given more game time in the coming months, then Lebanese fans will once more be given the opportunity to see one of their own playing in Germany’s biggest league. And Younes might not be the only one. In recent days some German news outlets have reported that Freiburg, the club that brought Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad to Germany, want to buy Ahed’s Hussein Daqiq, who came off the bench for his first international cap against Iraq in January. More outlandishly, Tyre-born midfielder Moslehe Ali, who currently plies his trade with TSV Havelse in the fourth tier of German football, claimed in a recent interview with German-based Lebanese football website Fussball aus dem Libanon (Football in Lebanon) that he’s “had some requests from the Bundesliga,” adding that he’s also been in contact with the Lebanese national team.

Though the 50,000 strong Lebanese community in Germany is dwarfed by that of France and, to a lesser extent, the U.K., it should come as little surprise that Lebanese players looking to make their name in the European game have achieved the greatest success in the German leagues. No country has done more than Germany to integrate foreign-born and second-generation players into its football system, as shown by the recent success enjoyed by Mesut Ozil and Samir Khedira, both born in Germany to Turkish parents, and before that by Polish-born strikers Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. Should Younes ever find that his opportunities with the German national team are limited, then there is no reason why that system shouldn’t work to Lebanon’s advantage.

For Lebanese fans, meanwhile, the German connection might just be starting to make an impact. Among the 50,000 who turned out to watch Lebanon beat South Korea last year, sharp-eyed observers would have noticed a small group decked out in FC Koln shirts, bearing the name of Youssef Mohammad on the back. If Amir Younes makes the grade with Monchengladbach, and if Lebanese internationals continue to attract the attention of the Bundesliga, then perhaps we’ll come to see the shirts of Bayern, Schalke and Gladbach being worn in Lebanon after all.

 

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