Mehdi Khalil was a late bloomer. At the age of 22, he was working in a clothes shop and playing football just for fun; a full-time career in the sport seemed a world away.
Just a year later he was making his national team debut for Lebanon, and for the past decade he has been first choice between the posts for the Cedars.
It was a dramatic upturn in fortunes for Khalil, now of Jordan’s Al-Faisaly.
He was given a helping hand by ex-Lebanon national team captain Roda Antar. Like Khalil, Antar was raised among the large Lebanese diaspora in Sierra Leone and it was on a visit back to Africa that he spotted the goalkeeper’s potential.
“He asked me to do trials for the national team and at that time I wasn’t playing football professionally. I was working in a shop,” Khalil told Arab News. “But he always believed in me. I still remember him telling the coach, ‘Mehdi can be the national team goalkeeper for the next 10 years.’ It turns out he was right.”
Khalil, nicknamed “Jabal,” meaning “Mountain” because of his stature, has since built an impressive career in Lebanon. He won two Lebanese Premier Leagues and an FA Cup with Safa before adding four more league titles and two FA Cups with Al-Ahed.
His crowning glory with Ahed, however, was their 2019 AFC Cup triumph. Keeping nine clean sheets, with five successive shutouts in the knockout stages, including the final, Khalil not only won the club’s first continental trophy, but was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The goalkeeper’s impenetrability was inspired by a desire to prove his doubters wrong after an error he made in the 2019 Asian Cup against North Korea. Lebanon needed to win the game by four goals to progress to the knockout stage, but Khalil let a free-kick slip under his hands and the 4-1 result saw his side eliminated.
“All the blame was on me,” Khalil said. “When you are a goalkeeper, you might save 10 shots but then if you do one mistake, everybody attacks you. If you are a striker, the misses are forgotten, but this doesn’t happen with goalkeepers.
“Everyone was talking badly about me — fans, players — and it was a very negative time. This was my motivation in the AFC Cup; I really wanted to prove everyone wrong. When the guy in the final told me I was the MVP, I thought he just meant the best goalkeeper.
“I was shocked. But I was grateful my hard work and my patience paid off, and of course the hard work of my teammates too. We celebrated together after playing an amazing tournament.”
Khalil’s newest challenge is with Jordanian giants Al-Faisaly, with his summer loan move motivated by a desire to test himself in the AFC Champions League for the first time. It is the club’s debut in the AFC Champions League group stage too and in their first game, Khalil and company suffered an agonizing stoppage-time defeat to Nasaf in Amman.
“It was heartbreaking, it was tough,” Khalil recalls. “The mood was really down in the dressing room but we talked and the players were not so angry because we gave it our best in the second half and we were unlucky not to score.
“This is football. You just have to focus on the next game and put bad results behind you. We have still gained good experience and we have to learn from these games.”
The loss to Nasaf was followed by another narrow reverse, this time 1-0 away at Sharjah. Although Khalil could do nothing about Moussa Marega’s winner, he produced several impressive saves and was lauded for his performance. This week’s comprehensive loss at Al-Sadd means Al-Faisaly now have just three games left to turn their AFC Champions League campaign around.
“We know we are the underdogs because no one expects anything from Al-Faisaly in this tournament,” Khalil says. “You see the other clubs, the players they are buying in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, we know it’s a big competition. But it’s a big opportunity for all the players here also to show themselves to the world out there.
“I think our team has huge potential and we know the competition is better than we face in Jordan but this gives us the ambition to show something. It is motivation for any player to play against big players also that have played in the big leagues in Europe.
“Ultimately we just have to go out there and play our game; it’s 11 versus 11 and we’ll always fight and play hard to get the results.”
Khalil has also previously played on loan at Iranian side Zob Ahan until COVID-19 curtailed his spell there, and now he is enjoying the opportunity to experience a new football culture in Jordan.
“Al-Faisaly is a big club with a big history,” Khalil says. “They have a huge fan base and I have a huge respect for them — they love the club with all their hearts and show this in the way they support. I think in our part of the world, in the Middle East, it is difficult to find supporters who follow the team with this much passion. I am excited to be here.”
Khalil started life as a center-back, only becoming a goalkeeper after a coach recognized that his height would make him a major asset between the posts. Playing in Sierra Leone as a teenager, Khalil’s appearance drew comparisons with a legendary Manchester United goalkeeper.
“They used to call me (Edwin) Van der Sar and I was happy with that because I have always been a Manchester United fan,” Khalil laughs. “I loved it to be honest because I wanted to imitate his style of play — the way he positioned himself, the way he read the game — and I love that he always had this bit of fire on the pitch like me.
“Nowadays football is a bit different so now it is players like Allison who are the ones we need to watch. Goalkeepers have to adapt, we have to be better with our feet. Alisson is a great example of a modern goalkeeper, even if he plays for Liverpool.”
While Khalil is currently focused on AFC Champions League duties with Al-Faisaly, the 2023 Asian Cup, taking place in Qatar in January, is never far from his mind. Given his difficult experience in 2019, Khalil has a chance for redemption at the tournament and is hopeful that Lebanon can progress beyond the group stage this time.
“When I went on the pitch in 2019 for our first game against Qatar, I had tears in my eyes,” Khalil says. “All your life you dream of playing in big tournaments and for me, coming from nowhere in Sierra Leone to play in the Asian Cup with Lebanon — I felt such pride.
“It will be the same in January but now I am stronger and I know I have a responsibility as one of our most experienced players. A lot of players retired after 2019 so we are a younger team and we know it will be tough.
“We do not have enough investment in football in Lebanon — our facilities are nothing compared to other countries in West Asia and this means we are fighting uphill. But our players care about representing Lebanon and we believe we can qualify for the next round for the first time in our history.”