By Steven Oldham
Sutton United and Lebanon forward Omar Bugiel’s international ambitions have been put on hold by the Coronavirus pandemic – for now.
The 26-year-old was in line for a recall to the national team for next week’s now-suspended World Cup qualifier with group leaders Turkmenistan.
Lebanon have never qualified for a World Cup, but progressed to the Asian Cup group stages for the first time in 2019, missing out on the knockout rounds on fair play points only. Their only other appearance came as hosts 20 years ago.
After years in the international doldrums, the Arab nation’s footballers are providing their people hope of one day seeing their country represented on the biggest stage of them all.
He said: “Reaching a World Cup would be a massive achievement for us after qualifying for our first Asian Cup. Lebanon hasn’t been the brightest place in recent months with what’s been happening there.”
“Now this virus has made it that little bit more difficult. It was the right decision to stop all football globally. We don’t know how long it will take to go away and carry on with our normal lives.”
Back to full fitness after an injury interrupted season, Bugiel was anticipating stepping back into the international fold after reaching ten goals in all competitions.
However, the global sporting shutdown has left the group on a knife edge with competition fierce to reach the AFC’s final qualifying round.
Incredibly, Lebanon, Turkmenistan and North & South Korea are separated by one point at the top of Group H with only Sri Lanka already eliminated with three games remaining.
Bugiel said: “I was confident of a recall. I’m fully fit and back among the goals.
“For the last qualifiers, I wasn’t fully fit and had recently become a father. It wasn’t the right time for me to be involved and away from my family.”
Anti-Government protests last year led to games in Beirut against both Korean nations being played behind closed doors, with both matches ending goalless.
Omar – with seven caps and an international goal to his name – played in the 2-0 away defeat in to North Korea last September and gave insight into the atmosphere in Pyongyang.
“It was totally surreal playing there. You’re totally cut off from everyone and everything you know – and always being watched. Playing in that situation with no support, with thousands in the stadium against you – it’s a bit intimidating to be honest. Everyone wants you to lose.”
“I’m lucky to go to these places but I’m not sure I’d want to go back.”
The Cedars are clearly improving and have taken points off all four opponents in Group H, including beating group leaders Turkmenistan in Beirut. With a single point between the two countries, the return fixture could prove critical to who goes through to the final stage. Games against Sri Lanka and South Korea also have to be rearranged.
He understands that football has to take a back seat in the current situation the world finds itself.
“Some things are bigger than football. We are due to go to South Korea and they are one of the many places that have been hit badly with the coronavirus so we have no idea when that situation will be sorted out,” he said.
When football does return you can bet the ambitious ex-Bromley, Forest Green and Worthing man will be chomping at the bit to make history with his country.
Interview/article by @spoldham