Mr Lebanon: Nabbout flying the flag for his community in Russia

For the best part of six years, Andrew Nabbout has been brushing off a constant advance. Since he was 19, the Lebanese Football Association have been calling him up to their national team. No matter how hard they tried, he kept knocking them back, even in the times when he felt discarded by  Australian football. His reason was simple: he never lost hope of playing for the Socceroos.

True blue: Andrew Nabbout trains with the Socceroos in Turkey.

True blue: Andrew Nabbout trains with the Socceroos in Turkey.

"They contacted me a lot, especially in the last few years at Newcastle, because they wanted me to play in the qualifiers leading into this World Cup. In the back of their mind they had the 2019 Asian Cup as well, and they wanted me to pledge allegiance early on," he said. "Actually, it started well before. When I was at Victory I got the first email then, asking where my loyalty lay."

There were times when it wasn't  easy to reject the advances. Nabbout is proud of his heritage, he speaks fluent Lebanese Arabic, lists  kibbeh nayeh (a traditional dish made with raw lamb) as his favourite meal and is the son of two-times "Mr Lebanon" – his father, Milad, won the national body building title two years in a row before migrating to Australia.

Body of work: Milad Nabbout when he won the Mr Lebanon title.

Body of work: Milad Nabbout when he won the Mr Lebanon title.

"It was huge for him back then. He didn’t really continue because he didn’t have the financial backing back then. He always holds it next to his name. He shows everyone when they come to our house," Nabbout said. So when his career appeared to have stalled,  he mulled over the offer. It was 2015, he had been cut by Central Coast Mariners and was playing in Malaysia."There was a chance my career wasn’t going to kick on much further … it crossed my mind, what was the best decision to make? Do I play for Lebanon or do I stick to my guns and try and play for Australia?" he said. "For me, my loyalty always lied here, and I’ve always wanted to play for the Socceroos." That chance came this year after his stellar form with Newcastle Jets.Now, despite having   turned down the chance to play for his ancestral home, he is determined to fly the flag of his ethnic community. It's one that has contributed significantly to the business sector, politics, rugby league, even rugby union and AFL, but arguably has the least impact on Australian football of any major Mediterranean migrant group.

There was never a club from the Lebanese community in the old National Soccer League, and subsequently there were comparatively low participation rates. Nabbout is just the fourth Lebanese-Australian to play for the Socceroos and the second male to have scored in a green and gold shirt after Ahmad Elrich.  Alex Chidiac has netted for the Matildas. From a population of more than 230,000 that makes for a low conversation rate compared to those from its regional neighbours.

Elsewhere, Branco and Mario Zagallo both won World Cups playing for Brazil. Colombian goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon set the record for the oldest player to play in a World Cup, playing against Japan in 2014 at the age of 42 . Former Argentine international Antonio Mohamed is currently coaching in La Liga with Celta Vigo while the likes of Pierre Issa (South Africa) and Julio Manzur (Paraguay) have both played in the World Cup.

Having become the first Lebanese Australian to be selected for a World Cup, he hopes to step on to the field in Russia and encourage more from the local diaspora to pursue football.

"Anything that I can do, any image I can bring to the Lebanese community to try and encourage more kids to play football is a job done for me. That’s my goal, to get as many young players playing football as possible, and it’s already started in my family," Nabbout said. "As soon as I started playing professional football, a lot of kids in my family started playing football."

Just as the Cedars proved in the recent Rugby League World Cup, the success of   athletes can galvanise a community. Nabbout will keep that flag flying at another major tournament  and the significance of being the first Lebanese Australian to play for the Socceroos at a World Cup has not been lost on the young striker.

"I grew up watching the Socceroos, I was born here. I have a Lebanese background but I’m an Aussie," he said.

"To be able to go out there and not only represent Australia but also represent the Lebanese people in Australia is huge … To have all the Lebanese people backing me and really following my journey and my success is huge because although we’re all Australian, you feel like you have an obligation to represent that community very well."

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