LONDON: Being born in Germany, moving to England aged 16 before playing park football and finally making it as a professional with the little-known Forest Green Rovers may not sound like a route to becoming a Lebanese international, but then the Cedars are not like most international teams.
The Middle East country has a population of just over six million people but an estimated eight to 14 million of Lebanese origin living abroad. That potential pool of players has sent the country’s coach Miodrag Radulovic (below), like his predecessors, scouring the globe looking for talent.
Thanks to having a Lebanese father, Omar Bugiel was brought to the coach’s attention on one of his forays abroad, and for the Bromley striker it came as something of a shock.
“I was minding my own business when I got this call. It was from an unknown number and I thought it was a missed call or something,” the 24-year-old told Arab News.
“It was the national team manager, Radulovic. I am not really sure how he got my number to be honest, but he asked me if I would be interested in playing for the national team and that was that. It was completely out of the blue.”
That unexpected call took place two years ago and since then Bugiel has been a key member of a Lebanon team breaking new ground on the international scene, while also now playing for Bromley in the fifth tier of English football. His entry into the national team set-up coincided with the Cedars’ rapid rise up the FIFA rankings and an unbeaten stretch of 16 matches, which ended last October with a 1-0 defeat to Kuwait.
To go from club player with the unheralded Forest Green Rovers to international football was “a big thing” but Bugiel’s path to professional football was, like his journey to international football, far from typical.
Having been rejected by 1860 Munich aged 16 he decided to leave Germany and try his luck in England. He had spells at five clubs before getting the move to Forest Green Rovers, where he scored 48 goals in 124 appearances. That route has seemingly made him ready for anything, including playing international football for a country he admits he had “only been to a few times before.”
“I flew out to Beirut about a week after the call and got my passport sorted so I could play for them in the Asia Cup qualifying game,” Bugiel said. “Next thing I knew I was traveling for my first match against Malaysia. I didn’t get on the pitch, I couldn’t expect to get in ahead of the players who had been playing for two to three years.
“I was patient, traveling with the squad for the North Korea match and then made my debut against Singapore.
“That was a big thing for me, I only played about 45 minutes but to have played Sunday League football and then seven or so years later to be playing for your country is massive.”
Like Bugiel, a lot of the Lebanon team is drawn from far and wide. As many as nine of the recent Asian Cup squad were born abroad, but rather than create divisions in the camp Bugiel claims the diversity is a unifying factor and that they all are proud to play for the Cedars.
“There are Lebanese around the world and whenever I play for the team I want to do well. We have done really well these past few years, it’s a massive thing for everyone, for the players born there and the rest of the squad. For me and Hilal El-Helwe, (who is also German-born) every time we go there we cannot wait to get to play for the national team because it’s in our blood.
“Everyone is going to be different, and yes the language it is a difficult thing, my Arabic isn’t the best but I get along with every single player, there are no separate groups.”
That having such a diverse range of players has not hindered Lebanon’s results can easily be seen in the results they have enjoyed. The unbeaten run and leap from 178th eight years ago to 77th in the FIFA rankings last year allowed the side to qualify for a major international tournament for the first time and bring the feel-good factor to Lebanese football.
Having scored his debut goal against Jordan last September — “when I came on I decided just to have a strike and lucky enough it went in, it was an amazing experience” — Bugiel suffered a hamstring injury during the friendly against Australia two months later and was not able to be a part of the Asian Cup side.
While they did not make it to the second round the Cedars certainly did not disgrace themselves, losing to the eventual winners Qatar and powerhouse Saudi Arabia before winning their first ever match at an international tournament, a 4-1 thrashing of North Korea.
“I am still gutted at not being part of the Asian Cup if I am being honest,” Bugiel admitted.
“But we had a great team spirit, I was speaking to the boys and wishing them all the best. We did well but unfortunately the results we had weren’t enough to get to the knockout stages.
“I was just gutted for the boys after all the work they had put in. To get so far and to have a few decisions that didn’t go our way and to just miss out was tough.”
Now the Asian Cup adventure is over Bugiel can look forward to what he hopes is a future full of more goals for both Lebanon and Bromley. The initial aim on the international stage is for the Cedars to try to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Given the lack of resources compared to other Asian nations, Lebanon are always going to be up against it when trying to make it to the biggest tournament in football.
But Bugiel said the atmosphere in the camp is positive and they will go into qualifying, starting in September, backing themselves to create another shock.
“We cannot wait to get together again and play,” he said. “The team is young, you’ve also got (captain) Hassan Maatouk who can still play and we have got to try and keep that nucleus together and add in the promising young players.”
“You never know what can happen, we’d love to go on another unbeaten 16-game run, which would be great. You just have to take it game by game to get to the World Cup.”
Coming back from injury, Bugiel’s first thought is to get back to full fitness and do well for Bromley to get back into the squad.
“Wearing the national team shirt is like nothing I’ve experienced before, I am very proud of it, and representing my country is a big part of me now.”