BEIRUT

Football

Dreaming of playing football - but knowing better

Maatouk (yellow) had to suffer years of poor salaries and bad conditions before moving abroad. (The Daily Star/Azakir)

BEIRUT: Though the dream of almost every Lebanese boy is to play professional football, as young men most are swiftly and cruelly kicked back into reality.

In addition to knowing that Lebanon’s first division does not qualify as professional, an aspiring Lebanese football player must grapple with the dismal reality of a low salary, dim future prospects and oftentimes lukewarm support – if not outright opposition – from family.

The lack of team sponsors combined with low revenues from match tickets and replica kits means that salaries are often paid by team owners. While there are no official records of salaries for the players, it is whispered around the league that the top earners rake in, at best, around $1,000 per month.

Mazen Ahmadiyeh is Nejmeh’s physiotherapist (he also has a private practice) and once dreamed of being a professional footballer himself. Ahmadiyeh came of age in Safa Club’s youth system, but when the time came to decide between making a run at a professional playing career or pursuing university studies in physical therapy, he chose what he saw as his only viable option.

“In Lebanon there is no future for a football player,” Ahmadiyeh laments.

Mohammad Harb, an engineer and enthusiastic football fan in Dubai encountered a similar mentality on the part of his parents when he was younger.

While his father used to wake him up late at night to watch football matches (resulting in early morning arguments with his mother), he was discouraged from playing. “Dad ... always saw me as a doctor,” he writes in an email exchange with The Daily Star’s Sports Weekly.

Many like Ahmadiyeh and Harb realize that while football may be a passion, the salaries are a pittance and often cannot support a family. The result is that most players need a second income.

Ahmadiyeh uses the Nejmeh squad as an example. Despite being one of the most well-known clubs in Lebanon and the current table-topper, the majority of Nejmeh’s players hold second jobs. This proves quite taxing, as a player must attend daily training sessions and occasionally travel for training camps or matches.

According to Ahmadiyeh, the board members and management of Nejmeh usually find the players jobs in their companies. The jobs will usually be flexible ones that allow them to make it to training sessions and attend away games and training camps.

“It’s rare to find a player who can work outside [of these companies],” Ahmadiyeh maintains, though he did cite one player employed by a hotel. “He works the night shift, starting at 6 p.m. and can’t make training camp. When we went to [Tyre] and slept at the hotel he couldn’t come.”

While it’s clear that the life of a footballer in Lebanon is devoid of the fame and money associated with playing professional football abroad, the goal of virtually every player is to use the Lebanese league as a stepping stone toward a more globally appreciated league. However, this is where the largest complications arise.

Rani Ghaziri is the head coach of Advance Soccer Academy, a competitive football academy based in Beirut that sends players abroad to Europe for camps, tournaments and trials. Speaking via telephone, Ghaziri told The Daily Star’s Sports Weekly of a trial for a couple of his under-13 players in Milan, Italy.

When asked whether these players held only Lebanese nationality, Ghaziri answers, “We won’t promote a player [to the highest level in the academy] unless he has dual citizenship.”

“[Players who hold only Lebanese nationality] should get the idea of Europe out of their heads,” says Ghaziri, though he did add that a player with boundless talent might have a chance at a lucrative contract in one of the Gulf states, which in turn could possibly lead to a move to one of Europe’s leagues.

“England is a no, maybe Italy, Holland and Portugal are possible, but Europe has been tightening the strings and it’s getting harder and harder to make it there.”

One player Ghaziri uses as an example is Lebanese national team member Hassan Maatouk, who is currently at Ajman, a first division club in the United Arab Emirates. While rumors have circulated in the past six months that Maatouk may be poised to move to Germany or France, Ghaziri draws attention to the hardship Maatouk endured to make it out of Lebanon in the first place.

Last week, Lionel Messi became Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer at the age of just 24. It took Maatouk – or “The Messi of the Middle East” as he is known by more than one Arab commentator – as many years to even be considered by the continent whose shores Messi reached at the tender age of 12.

While the story of Maatouk is still being written, many Lebanese players derive inspiration from homegrown stars such as Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad. While neither Antar nor Mohammad currently wears the jersey of a European side, there was a time when they both suited up for German Bundesliga side SC Freiburg and later for FC K?ln, another Bundesliga team. Lebanese football fans with an intimate knowledge of the professional game often boast that Mohammad even captained the K?ln side at one point.

In fact, current Racing Beirut head coach David Nakhid believes that Lebanese footballers can follow in the footsteps of Antar and Mohammad, even though he acknowledges neither “set Europe on fire.”

Nakhid’s convictions stem from his own experience. A former Trinidad and Tobago international, Nakhid comes from a country even smaller than Lebanon, and points to cultural similarities between his home country and his adopted one.

“I say Lebanese people are Trinidadians, but white, and Trinidadians are Lebanese, but black,” Nakhid asserts. Nakhid refers to his own experience as a young footballer coming from a country that, like Lebanon, had “no credible football history.”

Nakhid was the first player from Trinidad and Tobago to play professionally in Europe, forging an impressive career in Switzerland, Belgium and Greece and paving the way for future Trinidad and Tobago stars such as Manchester United’s Dwight Yorke and Newcastle United’s Shaka Hislop. Despite captaining his national team and playing in the European Cup, Europe’s premier club competition, Nakhid remembers returning home for vacations only to be greeted by sneering friends and neighbors posing questions laced with sarcasm, such as, “What do you get paid?”

Nakhid, who also runs a youth academy in Beirut called the David Nakhid Academy, acknowledges that when he tells parents that a player has the potential to play professionally, the reaction is “skeptical at best and hopeful at most.”

“They feel that education is the best alternative at the time,” Nakhid says, adding that in Lebanon money enhances one’s prestige.

“Lebanese society sees successful people as engineers and lawyers and doctors,” explains Harb. “A football player [is] an employee during the day and a footballer at night. Lebanese [think] it is a hobby for skillful people and not a profession.”

Nakhid feels that changes need to be made in the Lebanese league to give the profession the prestige it’s lacking. Higher salaries, which would reduce the need for secondary incomes, could come from government spending as well as sponsors, says Nakhid. He also refers to the Trinidadian league as an example of the CEO subsidizing the players’ salaries, though the thorny issue of sectarianism may hinder this idea in Lebanon.

Harb agrees that changes need to be implemented, suggesting universities offer sports scholarships and football academies be convinced to focus not only on sport but education as well, so that a player’s “educational future is guaranteed.”

ASA’s Ghaziri agrees with the others on education being key, saying: “God forbid they have no education behind them.”

Regardless of the current restrictions, Nakhid remains adamant that Lebanese footballers can reach the European stage, though it will take hard work. “Talk is talk; it’s about implementation,” Nakhid says.

Of his own experience making it as a professional, Nakhid observes: “There is no fixed road map ... I was lucky but I was also prepared. Going to college in America [Nakhid attended American University in Washington, D.C.] and playing semipro in northern Virginia made me disciplined.”

Upon arriving in Europe, Nakhid had to train every day for three months without receiving any positive or negative reaction from then Grasshoppers coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. One day he was suddenly told he would be training with the first team for half an hour. When the chance came, “I killed them,” says Nakhid.

Many Lebanese will want to follow in the footsteps of Nakhid, Antar and Mohammad.

“The possibilities are quite good. Better than before,” Nakhid says, noting that the national team’s recent success has shined a brighter light on the Lebanese game.

While the road is long and strewn with obstacles, the dream is not impossible.

But until tangible institutional improvements are made and widespread Lebanese social perceptions of football change, many young dreamers will be obliged to abandon their fantasies for more modest and attainable goals.

 

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