Former Melbourne City goalkeeper Mark Aouad has set his sights on representing Lebanon at international level.
Victorian-born and bred Aouad joined Lebanese Premier League club Safa Beirut SC at the start of this year.
The keeper has spent the past decade at different clubs across Europe, including at the academies of Stoke City, Manchester City and Genoa, after first leaving Australia as a teenager.
Now the 24-year-old is impressing in the Middle East and is closing in on a debut for the Cedars.
“It’s been good so far, I came here in January,” Aouad told The World Game.
“It’s a new experience, which is good. Apart from getting used to the culture differences, everything else is the same as when I was playing in Europe.
“It’s a top four club here. The coach is German and a lot of the top four teams here have foreign coaches. It’s not really anything different to what I’m used to.”
Aouad is eligible to represent Lebanon through his mother. He says he moved to the country to put himself in the shop window to play for them.
“Even though I left Australia when I was about 14 to go to Europe, when I got to this age now I thought whether I play for the Lebanese national team or the Australian national team,” he admitted.
“And right now the Socceroos, in the goalkeeping department, have a lot of quality there. So I thought I might as well give it a shot in Lebanon, play a season or so, see how it works with the national team and see where it can take him after.
“That was the whole point of me going to Lebanon, that was the goal. My first choice was to play for Australia, but if it can’t be for Australia then I’ll give it a shot with Lebanon.
“Obviously when you play international football it opens a lot of doors for you in club football as well. Hopefully it can open some doors in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, wherever.”
Lebanon are ranked 91st in the world and currently sit third in their qualification group for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Aouad says he has been told he is in the frame for selection for their March qualifiers.
“The next set of qualification games are in March and I think the coach will bring me in there,” he said.
“We’ll have to wait and see how it goes, hopefully it stays like this and he does give me a call.”
The shot-stopper conceded football has a long way to go in the Middle Eastern nation.
“At the moment you have four or five teams in the first division that are financially well-backed,” Aouad explains.
“So they’re trying to bring that footballing culture to Lebanon, but as for the rest of the teams I think they have a long way to go. Football here is not great, the football culture in general in Lebanon is not great either.
“They have a lot of stuff to work on – the facilities, it’s mainly just academies. It’s sort of limited.
“The top teams have the right type of mentality and everyone else has a long way to go. In Australia we have a lot of talented guys who need an opportunity, or the right coaching or pathway, but here they don’t even have that.
“The first sport here is basketball, and because they are really good at it a lot of their top athletes go to that stream. It’s even strange here how much a role religion plays in it too.
“Football here is more of a Muslim sport and basketball is a more of a Christian sport. Even that divides the players. It’s different.”
Aouad has been on a remarkable footballing odyssey since leaving Melbourne at the tender age of 14. He grew up in the Victorian capital and started playing for junior club Bundoora United FC.
A chance meeting with an English agent ended with Aouad heading to the UK and signing for Stoke, then in the Premier League. The keeper spent nearly four years with the Potters.
“That’s a funny story,” he said.
“It was an English agent who was on holiday in Australia. It just happened he went to the park to watch some football, to see how younger players play in Australia.
“He went to watch one of my games and through that he approached me and said I thought you played well, have you ever thought about going to Europe and playing in England. He spoke to my parents and me, he said come over and that’s it.
“I just went over like that, had a trial at Stoke City. They liked me, they took me, I was there for a couple of years and after that I had some issues with my passport.
“But the laws were a bit easier in Italy and the sports director arranged to send me to Genoa.”
Aouad spent only a season with Genoa before moving on to Serbian side FK Cukaricki. Over the past four years he has had spells in Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia, as well as a brief stint with Melbourne City’s youth team.
“Italy was great football-wise,” he said.
“They really now how to train goalkeepers there. But I think the culture, Italy in general was difficult for me.
“I didn’t really like the year that I was there as I didn’t like the country so much. That’s why I moved on.
“At the time we had a Serbian coach, and from there I moved to Serbia. That was really like an eye-opener. From there, living and playing in Serbia, I ended up meeting my wife.
“It was only a loan with Manchester City. I was only there for two games and then Stoke City wanted me back.
“If it was up to me, I wanted to stay. Even the two games I was there it was an amazing experience.
“It was just six months in Montenegro, I went there for game-time. Then I went to Melbourne City but I didn’t get any game-time there.
“They’d just bought Thomas Sorensen and it didn’t really work out. They also had Velaphi and Redmayne at the club.
“After that I went back to Europe to try and get playing again. And then from there I went to Slovenia.
“The level there was quite good. The league was actually a lot better than I thought it would be.”
Aouad has played in many different leagues and countries, but has no regrets about his nomadic career.
“When I left home I was 14 and now I’m 24,” he said.
“In that ten-year space I’ve moved around a lot but (have had) a lot of life experiences and I’ve enjoyed it, it’s taught me a lot and opened my eyes to a lot of things.”
Safa Beirut SC is an 80-year-old club that finished ninth in the 12-team Lebanese Premier League in the 2018-2019 campaign. This season the Eagles sit sixth on the table with one win, one draw and one loss after three losses.
Aouad wants to use his Lebanon stint as a springboard to a move to a higher league.
“At the moment I’ve got two and half years on my contract, but it’s not really with the intention of staying here,” he said.
“The club sort of knows I’m still young, so as soon as I get a call-up with the national team they’ll help me get a move somewhere else. Whether it’s in the Middle East or back to Europe.
“Maybe I’ll stay another season here and then look to move.”