Sitting in the idyllic setting of a five star hotel in Kuwait would seem a far cry from his days playing for the Parramatta Eagles in Sydney’s west, but for Ahmad Elrich who had been recalled to the Socceroos line-up after missing the World Cup, it was just another one of life’s experiences.
The pacey midfielder was in the Gulf state for an Asian Cup qualifying match and was excited about a new beginning in the Australian squad.
“Missing out on the World Cup was a very big disappointment for me, but it’s always good to come back and play for your country so I’m just looking forward to it,” said Elrich.
Australia had already qualified for their inaugural Asian Cup with victories over Bahrain in Manama and Kuwait in Sydney, with Lebanon – the fourth team in Group D, forced to pull out of the qualifying tournament due to the recent conflict with Israel.
For Elrich, who was born in Sydney from Lebanese parents, it didn’t matter that the match against Kuwait would have little bearing on qualification, as he focused on his ambitions at a national level and on next year’s Asian Cup.
The Socceroos train at Kuwait
“I want to cement a place in the starting 11. To be involved is good, but I’d like to push for a starting berth,” said Elrich who has been on the fringes of the first team since he made his debut for the Socceroos against Venezuela in February 2004.
“We have a very good chance of winning the Asian Cup, and that would give a huge boost to Australian football. A lot of countries would take us more seriously,” he added.
“We were playing teams that were a lot weaker than us in Oceania, so realistically it wasn’t a big challenge. Playing in Asia is going to be lot more difficult as there are quality teams like Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, – countries who are very good footballing nations, so it’ll be a good test to see where we are.”
Elrich’s career has taken him to all parts of the globe, but it has not been easy.
A contract dispute with South Korean club Busan Icons in 2004 saw him sitting on the sidelines for more than seven months, and his move to Fulham in July 2005 has resulted in just six league appearances for the Londoners with his first season ending in a loan spell at Norwegian club Lyn Oslo.
Ahmad Elrich fact file
Born: Sydney, Australia
However, the 25 year old remains positive about his situation and believes he can make it in the prestigious English Premier League where he was the first player of Lebanese descent to take part in the competition.
“I’d like to break into the first team at Fulham, and I thought I did well last season – especially in my first start against Liverpool.
“It’s been a bit frustrating, but I’m being patient. I feel that I can offer something, and I know I can play at that level.”
The right choice
At 17 years of age Elrich went on a football tour of Lebanon where he was scouted by Nejmeh Sporting Club – one of the most successful football clubs in Lebanon, and was also courted by the national team.
“Lebanon wanted me to play for them, but my coach at the time said I had the potential to play for Australia and luckily for me I made the right choice and it’s worked out well,” Elrich said.
“I got to go to the Olympic Games, and I think the profile of Australian football has helped me a lot. It was an honour to be asked to play for Lebanon and I’m proud of my Lebanese heritage, but I was born and bred in Australia so I felt it was the right country to play for.”
The Socceroos starting XI against
Sydney has a large Lebanese community – one which Elrich and his family are proud to be a part of as well as having a lot of family and close ties in his parents’ country of origin, so it was a big disappointment for the Socceroos when Lebanon cancelled their matches in Sydney and Beirut.
“I was gutted. It would’ve been the first time I got to play against Lebanon, and I’ve always wanted to play there to show the people what I can do. It would have been great to get to know the Lebanese players and to experience football in that culture.
“The match would have been great for me personally, a Lebanese-Australian coming to play against Lebanon, but who knows, maybe down the track there will be another opportunity,” added Elrich.
When asked about the recent crisis in Lebanon and the impact it has had on the country of his ancestry, Elrich felt saddened by the war and expressed a sense of futility regarding the seemingly never-ending conflict.
“It’s terrible. It was meaningless. Nothing was achieved by it, Hezbollah is still there, and all it did was ruin lives with many innocent people killed on both sides,” he said.
“As much as I’d love to see peace in the Middle East, I think it will be very difficult to achieve”
“It’s a shame because I think Lebanon was just coming out of a rebuilding phase and now everything has been set back 10-15 years.
“A lot of infrastructure was ruined in Lebanon – bridges, houses and roads – most of which weren’t even Hezbollah targets,” Elrich added.
“As much as I’d love to see peace in the Middle East, I think it will be very difficult to achieve given the current circumstances. The Lebanese people are forgiving and would like to get on with their lives, but it will be very hard to forget what happened.”
Although Elrich is very much an Australian player who strives to do the best for his country of birth, he would still like to see Lebanese football improve and make its mark on the world stage, just like the Socceroos have of late.
“The standard [in Lebanon], is OK, but obviously it needs to develop. They need to start qualifying for big tournaments such as the Olympics and the Asian Cup,” said the midfielder.
“They need to improve their youth system and develop their young players. Obviously the war has affected this as they’re out of the Asian Cup now, and as many of the Lebanese players are from the south of Lebanon that didn’t help.”
Ahmad Elrich in action against
In all his travels Elrich has been able to develop his football using different styles and influences from the various leagues he has played in, but it is not only on the pitch that his awareness has grown.
“Football has allowed me to travel and experience many cultures which have opened my eyes to a different world,” he said.
“I think more people should visit the Middle East because when people think of this region they usually think of war, but in reality you come to places like here [Kuwait], Dubai, and even Beirut which are beautiful and amazing places,” Elrich added.
“You develop a different way of thinking when you experience so many different cultures.”
The night after Aljazeera spoke to him, Ahmad Elrich lasted just 30 minutes in the match against Kuwait. A serious knee injury forced him from the field, giving him yet another hurdle to overcome on his path to footballing glory.
It was a devastating blow for Elrich who has such a desire to succeed after getting back into first team contention, and he may wonder just what he has done to deserve another set-back at a critical point in his career.
However, with his focus, determination and a cultured mind, it won’t be long before the Lebanese-Australian gets another chance to play for his national team.