Tokyo: Lebanese defender Joan Oumari never imagined that his move to Japan in 2018 would be the opportunity of a lifetime. He has added new experiences to the ones he had in Germany, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, and has made some fantastic friends.
Since arriving in the East Asia, Oumari has experienced a football style that was new to him and played alongside a host of stars who have made FIFA World Cup history – from Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa, who became world champions with Spain at South Africa 2010, to Lukas Podolski, who won the title with Germany at Brazil 2014.
The 31-year-old defender sat down with FIFA.com to talk about what he has learned from playing in Japan, what it is like to share the dressing room with some big names, and Lebanon's chances in the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
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Joan, you are currently playing your third season in Japan. How has the move to East Asia helped you personally?
My experience here is different from several other countries I played in. I spent some time in Germany, the UAE and Turkey and now I’m here in Japan. Each country has been a new chapter in my career, and I've learned different styles of football. Football in Japan is distinct and fast-paced because of the players’ physical build. I've learned a lot from playing here.
Japanese football has made huge strides over the past two decades and Japan has appeared in every World Cup since France 1998. What have you gained from playing in the J. League?
Playing in Japan has helped me to enhance my performance, my physical strength and the accuracy of my passes. The presence of top-quality players on the pitch has improved my concentration. Discipline is a big thing in Japan and I've never seen such strict discipline in any country I have played in. I think that’s one factor that has helped me to become a better player.
You have had the opportunity to play alongside a number of big names. How has that helped you personally?
It's wonderful to play alongside great players like Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski, David Villa and Fernando Torres. They are great players with great personalities. You can learn a lot from them, not only on the pitch but in life in general. I have had an unforgettable experience with them.
How has sharing the dressing room with these names helped you develop on and off the pitch?
At Sagan Tosu, my game improved significantly and Fernando Torres motivated me to raise the bar. He was a cool and humble person who always motivated me to do better. It was also great to share the dressing room and train with Iniesta and Podolski at Vissel Kobe. It felt great to play with Iniesta in training sessions, while Podolski became a close friend because we spoke to each other in German. My experience was second to none.
You've recently become one of the best defenders in the Lebanese national team. What's your take on what Lebanese football has achieved over the past two years?
Our national team has developed a lot, especially with our appearance at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Although we played well in the Qualifiers, we were unlucky in the Finals. However, we've learned a lot from that experience. We've come a long way and our opponents have realised that we've improved and that we are a team that shouldn't be underestimated. As for football in Lebanon, the sport has to be professionalised. If this happens, the game will develop further and the players will become much better.
Lebanon are currently in third place in Group H in the Asian Qualifiers for Qatar 2022. What do you make of your campaign so far?
Honestly, we could have done better. We lost our first match 2-0 to DPR Korea and dropped two points against them in Beirut, even though we are at a better level than them (Lebanon beat DPR Korea 4-1 at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup). Korea Republic are a good team, but we have quality players and we can't afford to lose again if we want to qualify. We must focus and be more serious in order to win the game. We have to make it to the Asian Cup and when it comes to the World Cup, I think everything is possible, but the Asian Cup should be our priority now.
You have three games left in the Qualifiers. How do you see your chances of making the third round?
Of course we have a chance. If we beat Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka, it would be good. Korea Republic are a strong team and they have many players based in Europe. Our encounter with them will certainly be difficult, but if we manage to get a draw, we will have a better chance of qualifying. We need to be more confident and resilient, and our performance must improve. I hope the situation in Lebanon will get better and that we can bring joy to the Lebanese people.
Sources: FIFA.com, AFC, AFP
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