BEIRUT: Australia touched down in Beirut Tuesday ahead of Thursday’s much anticipated friendly with Lebanon at the Saida International stadium.
A star-studded squad, brimming with world-class talent, gathered at the home of Lex Bartlem, the Australian ambassador to Lebanon, where a contingent of Lebanese journalists and Australian expatriates were on hand to welcome the Socceroos.
The friendly marks an unprecedented event for the country, with an array of current and former English Premier League stars expected to start Thursday – much to the delight of those with tickets for the game.
The likes of captain Lucas Neil (former Blackburn and West Ham defender), Tim Cahill (ex-Everton midfielder), Mark Schwarzer (Fulham goalkeeper) and Brad Jones (Liverpool keeper) provided the local press with unfamiliar exposure to world-class athletes.
The players were paraded out one by one, with an embassy official providing some impromptu sound bites as a highlight reel of the Socceroos’ 2006 World Cup exploits ran on a giant screen.
Currently plying his trade in Dubai with Al Wasl FC, Neil was the first of the internationals to address the significance of proceedings, lauding the string of Lebanese footballers he has encountered during his time in the Gulf.
He added that the match between the two sides is long overdue, praising Lebanon for their improved performances over the past few months after the Cedars advanced to the second group phase of World Cup qualification for the first time in their history.
Australia’s vice captain Cahill spoke of the vast number of Lebanese friends he has back home, as well as commenting on Lebanon’s natural beauty.
The players then embarked on some social duties, posing for photos and chatting with the invitees.
Australia are ranked by FIFA as the 24th best side in international football for good reason, and will sport a formidable side Thursday with their minds on their World Cup qualifier with Jordan – five days after the Lebanon game.
Lebanon and coach Theo Bucker will be eager to overcome the jitters that surely await them, as they face arguably their best opponents yet.
While the Cedars will understandably be excited about the prospect of playing Australia, Lebanese supporters will be hoping the players approach the game with more than just a pinch of salt, instead focusing on their must-win World Cup qualifier with Iran Tuesday.