‘Focus on the future’ Maatouk tells team
‘Focus on the future’ Maatouk tells team
That’s the rallying call from the side’s captain Hassan Maatouk who insisted The Cedars must not fall foul of complacency and keep focused on the ultimate aim: A good run in the 2019 tournament.
There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about for Lebanon over the past few decades, but a slice of history will be in the making when they travel to Hong Kong on Tuesday for their penultimate qualifier.
Their only previous appearance at the tournament came by virtue of being hosts. On that occasion they were bundled out in the group stage after two draws and a loss from their three matches.
Never before have Lebanon qualified for the tournament on merit. Until now.
Sitting five points clear of second-placed North Korea and third-placed Hong Kong, they go into Tuesday’s clash knowing that they have already qualified for the expanded 24-team tournament, set to take place in the UAE in 14 months’ time.
That might tempt some players to take it easy, not least because Lebanon easily beat Hong Kong 2-0 when the sides met in the first qualifier in March.
But Maatouk has warned that while making the Asian Cup was a huge achievement, the real hard work begins now.
“Now we must work harder, we must make good friendly games and good camps to be ready for the Asian Cup,” the 30-year-old told Arab News.
“We don’t want to go to the Asian Cup only to lose, we want to make good results to prove we are a good team. (For) maybe 13 games now we haven’t lost, we have many professional players outside (the country), so we can do good at the Asian Cup.
“It’s not so easy, but we can prove ourselves at the Asian Cup and when you play bigger teams, you play better and we have many quality players, we have players who are confident so we can get good results.”
The winger, who left UAE first division club Al-Fujairah, now coached by Diego Maradona, in the off-season to return home to Lebanon to play for Nejmeh, added that the side was now settled and has all the attributes needed to do well, as well as being excited at having made history for their country.
“It’s the first time for the national team to qualify from the group directly, so all the people they are happy,” the skipper said.
“These last two or three years we worked hard with the new coach (Montenegrin Miodrag Radulovic) and it was not so easy to qualify for the Asian Cup. (But) we are a good group, a good national team, with good players.
“We worked hard and we are now in a good situation. We are happy for this, because we are the team that took Lebanon to the Asian Cup.”
The Cedars’ recent run of good form makes them one of Asia’s most in-form sides, going undefeated in their past 11 matches dating back to March last year.
The most impressive of those performances was a 5-0 hammering of North Korea, traditionally one of the strongest “second-tier” nations in Asia, with Maatouk scoring his 17th goal for his country in the process, taking him just three shy of Lebanese legend Roda Antar, who he replaced as captain in 2016.
“It was one of the best games we played,” Maatouk said of their win over North Korea in Beirut.
“We played good football, and we’ve now played against many teams and proven we are a good team, and not easy to play against. We proved that we are a good team, that we can win, that we have good players.
“All the teams now know that Lebanon has many good players and they are a good team who play with a lot of heart, I think people know that now.”
The added responsibility of the captaincy hasn’t weighed down Maatouk, who has scored three times in four matches in this third round of qualifying.
With his confidence flying high, you wouldn’t back against him adding to that tally against Hong Kong as he looks to be the first captain since Jamal Taha to lead his nation at an Asian Cup.
Flying the flag for the Green Falcons in Russia
- A group of motorcyclists is following the Saudi football team for their World Cup matches in 3 cities
- Behind the bikers are Frankfurt, Brest, Moscow and Voronezh. They are staying now in Rostov-on-Don, where the Green Falcons will play their second match against Uruguay at Rostov Arena.
MOSCOW: To travel to Russia by motorcycle from Saudi Arabia: Risky and arduous? Well, to most, yes, but four brave men from the cities of Makkah and Madinah have just about done that, flying their motorbikes from Jeddah to Germany and driving to Russia from there.
They came up with the idea to support the Green Falcons — Saudi Arabia’s national football team — on their way to the 2018 FIFA World Cup by arranging an extraordinary motor rally from Jeddah to Russia.
Their route follows the team to their group stage matches in three cities: From last Thursday’s opening in Moscow, to Wednesday’s game in Rostov-on-Don, and then to their third game in Volgograd next Monday.
To Ahmed Barnawi, Satam Sardidi and Sultan Hawsawi from Makkah and Talal Obaid from Madinah, their trip seemed quite adventurous. They did not know exactly what to expect. Nonetheless, they decided to go for it.
For their initiative, they got extraordinary support from Saudi Airlines and Cargo. “Saudia made a big effort to ship our bikes from Jeddah to Frankfurt and helped with the tickets,” said Barnawi, in an exclusive interview with Arab News.
After receiving that encouraging support, the four proceeded with planning the hotels and details of the route.
They started their ride from Frankfurt, heading to Russia through Poland and Belarus. They were impressed by the hospitality of the Belarusian people, who did not speak English but were helpful with “filling the customs forms,” Barnawi said. “They were wonderful.”
Entering Russia, the four were having some language barrier issues as well. But Russians used Google Translate to communicate.
Now the four have adopted this practice. Since then, when they need anything from the Russians not speaking English, they use Google Translate and it works perfectly.
They knew “a little bit” about Russia before going, Barnawi said, but when they came to Russia “it was mad, really.”
Before going to Russia they were concerned about how Russians would receive them, if there would be racism and what their attitudes would be. But their worries were groundless. The motorcyclists said people are so friendly, they wave and give them a thumbs-up on the road.
At petrol stations, people are shocked to see them on their motorcycles, with the Saudi flags attached. They approach them in disbelief and ask about their trip.
The four have been absolutely impressed by the country’s roads and highways. They have found that the weather in Russia is not as cold as it is believed, although it is not hot.
Entering Moscow they got “surprised by the huge buildings, wide streets.”
Upon their arrival, they visited the Saudi Embassy in Russia and met Saudi Ambassador Raed bin Khaled Qarmali, who received them with a warm welcome. They were served tea and coffee in the reception hall and asked to share their stories and impressions.
For the first game between Russia and Saudi Arabia, they tried to enter the area of the stadium on their motorbikes, but it was not allowed by the authorities.
“We understand that maybe it was because of security issues,” said Barnawi. “We did not go to the stadium. We went to a coffee shop to watch the game on a TV.”
“The first game we did not play,” said Barnawi, giving his take on the first match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which the Green Falcons lost 5-0.
“It was a big issue for the supporters. But we never give up, you know. We close this subject, we look forward to the next game and we are going to play it better than before. And I hope that our team will do a better job, and we will win or break even,” Barnawi continued.
Because of all the time spent on the road, the Fantastic Four do not have much of a chance to follow other countries’ games. They succeeded in watching some while mapping out the next day’s route.
Nevertheless, the four bikers are enjoying the atmosphere of the World Cup and the football euphoria that surrounds it, saying that the whole event “is just amazing, it is awesome.”
Behind them are Frankfurt, Brest, Moscow and Voronezh. They are staying now in Rostov-on-Don, where the Green Falcons will play their second match against Uruguay at Rostov Arena. After that, they will go to Volgograd, where the team will play Egypt. They do not plan now for what will come next, hoping only for the best for the Saudi team.