GameChangers: Lili Iskandar’s unshakeable dream
Zgharta: A global pandemic and a national tragedy have marred what should have been her breakout year, but overcoming obstacles is nothing new for Lili Iskandar
In this edition of the AFC’s GameChangers series, the face of a talented new generation of Lebanese women discusses the long road from Zgharta to international football, dreams of European stardom and persisting, no matter what.
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It seems like a long time ago now, but Lili Iskandar had plenty to celebrate last New Year’s Eve.
The teenager from Zgharta, near Tripoli in northern Lebanon, spent the night on a football pitch in Bahrain, providing fireworks of her own by scoring twice in a 3-1 win over the United Arab Emirates in a group stage match at the WAFF U-18 Girls’ Championship.
By the end of the first week of 2020, Lebanon had dethroned Jordan to become the new regional youth champions and Iskandar – a tall, elegant attacking midfielder with the ability to both create and finish - had emerged as their star, dominating opponents and completing the tournament with seven goals in four matches, including a hat-trick in the semi-final and a double in the final.
A few weeks earlier, Lebanon’s Under-15 women’s national team had won a West Asian title of their own, and – at the end of a decade in which the country’s senior women’s team played in only a handful of competitive tournaments - the dawn of the 2020s suddenly appeared brighter than ever.
مبروك لمنتخب لبنان🏆 بطل بطولة إتحاد غرب آسيا الثانية للشابات - البحرين ٢٠٢٠— West Asian Football Federation (@waffootball) January 6, 2020
#WAFFU18 #WomenFootball #Lebanon #Iraq #UAE #Jordan #Bahrain #Palestine #Kuwait#غرب_اسيا #شابات_غرب_اسيا #لبنان #العراق #الإمارت #الاردن #البحرين #فلسطين #الكويت pic.twitter.com/ObWd10g6Q5
“We had competition,” the 18-year-old whose name is Layla, but who is known by nearly everyone as Lili told the-AFC.com.
“Jordan was known as the best team in everything in the Arab region. Our national team are not known as a very, very good national team, but the clubs have been developing the individual skills of the players.
“When the Under-15s won against Jordan, they pushed us. They showed us that we have to stop this thing where Jordan always wins. It’s time for us to win. The Under-15s won, and then we won after them, so I think now it’s a chance to continue this progress.
“We don’t want to win this one cup and we’re done. No, this is the first step to the end goal.”
While it may have signalled the beginning of a promising new dawn for Lebanon, the tournament in Bahrain also marked the end of what had been a remarkably busy 2019 for Iskandar.
As a 17-year-old, she scored at a rate of more than a goal a game to help club side Stars Association for Sports – known as SAS - win the Lebanese Women’s Football League and, having made her debut at 16 the previous year, joined the senior women’s national team in their attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
She also played a full season in Lebanon’s youth league, scored for SAS at the WAFF Women’s Club championship in Jordan and attended scores of training sessions, all while living a 90-minute drive away from Beirut, and all while still attending school.
“I went to training four times a week,” she revealed. “We travelled by car, with my grandpa driving.
“It was very tough because it takes three hours – one hour and a half to get there and one hour and a half back – and I had my school also. I want to graduate this year.
“It was very tough, because the training was late; at 8 or 9. I would arrive very late to my house and then the next day I would have to go school. With SAS and the national team, nearly every day I went to Beirut.”
An unwavering dedication, and regular trips south, have been par for the course for years now.
Ever since childhood, Iskandar has been chasing an ambition to play professionally in Europe, a goal which she admits took time for her family to fully comprehend.
“In our family, everybody loves football. We watch, we support teams. My dad, my brothers,” she explained
“I played with the boys, who laughed at me at first. In that environment, they didn’t understand. 'Oh, a girl playing football. Oh, she’s a boy.' It hurt, but it gave me motivation to continue and to prove everyone wrong.
“I played at home, first with my brother, I played at school. I went to a club, but at first, I was with a boys’ team because there weren’t any girls playing. At first it was tough because my parents – especially my dad – were afraid, because I was a girl, alone, going to Beirut with a lot of boys, but I loved it. I really did.
“I gained this support (from my family). At first my uncle and my dad didn’t want me to go. In Lebanon they say playing football is just a hobby, and at 16 or 17 years old you’re done. You go to study or go to university. There was no motivation given to pursue football.
“It is one of the difficulties. The most common problem (for female footballers in Lebanon) is the parents, the environment and them not being open to the idea, until now.”
The support of Iskandar’s family, coupled with her increasingly excellent performances, began to pay dividends when she burst onto the international scene over the last two years, and her European dream looked to be on the verge of becoming a reality when she was offered a chance to train with Germany’s Werder Bremen in early 2020.
But, in the first of what would become a series of setbacks caused by events beyond her control, the trip fell through at the last minute due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“I was leaving. I was travelling to Germany to train, to have experience in Europe, but because of ‘corona’, I couldn’t go,” she said.” Five days before the flight, I couldn’t go. It was the (Bremen) Under-19 squad. I was just going to experience it and see what was out there.”
Lebanon’s U-19 women’s league was also cancelled due to the pandemic, and Iskandar estimates that it has been five months since she last played a competitive match, a situation which she believes could harm the development of the talented players who won the regional title eight months ago.
“If we just train, it’s not enough,” she said. “We have to play games and we have to have competition, especially at our age. We need it. We can’t learn something in training without out doing it in the game, so it’s tough.”
But simply being unable to play football could be considered a relatively minor problem compared to what Lebanon as a whole has had to face in recent times.
Already struggling in an exceptionally difficult year, the nation instantly became the subject of breaking news bulletins in every corner of the globe just over a month ago, as a giant explosion at Beirut’s Port left a horrific trail of damage, killing nearly 200 people and displacing an estimated 300,000.
Unlike so many other times over the previous two years, Iskandar was not in the nation’s capital when the explosion occurred. Nonetheless, she, and the entire Lebanese population, felt its impact.
“I have goose bumps now, talking about it,” she said. “I wasn’t in Beirut, but it affected all of us. It’s our country, after all. It hurts, it really hurts.
“There are people who died, and ones who are still missing. All of my friends are down. If I had training that day, it would have been me, knocked down in the street. It hurts a lot.
“We’re used to difficult situations and problems, but this explosion was completely another thing. When the explosion happened, the people went down on the streets and helped each other. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s very sad.
“One week earlier when you went to Beirut there was everything, then you go again, and there was nothing. There are people who don’t have the money to pay to fix their house. It is very, very difficult.”
These are tough times for Lebanon, but a glimmer of hope remains in the world of women’s football.
There are plans to revive the women’s national league in October, and, with 19 of the 22 players from their last tournament aged 20 or younger at the time, the national team which has so often been absent from major tournaments looks set to reap the benefits of an improved focus on young talents.
“(Other national teams) have a lot of experience, and our average age is 20 or 21. We have a very young team,” said Iskandar.
“Before, there was less importance given to the league. If we had matches next month, we’d start training today, not one year ago. When we had something – a cup, a league, or whatever – we’d train. If we didn’t, we would stop training.
“Lately there has been more of a focus on the girls, and especially when we won the Under-15 and Under-18 tournaments.”
Happily, for Iskandar – who speaks English, French and Arabic - the chance to show off her many talents at a European club remains on the table.
She hopes to swap Lebanon for Lisbon in the near future, and, while 2020 has been far from easy, she may once again have something to celebrate by the time New Year’s Eve comes around.
“I’m going to Benfica in Portugal. They closed the country because of coronavirus, but next week I will start with the visa application. It’s not easy with the visa, but they sent me the invitation.
“It’s not for the first team, for the second team, but they also play at a high level.”
Whether her professional breakthrough comes in this most difficult of years or further into the future – and for Iskandar it is very much a case of if, not when – she insists it will be far from an individual journey.
Just as Iskandar credits her teammates for her WAFF U-18 success – “we all won. I couldn’t have done it without them” – she hopes whatever she goes on to achieve in the game will create a legacy for other Lebanese girls.
“When I came back from Bahrain, I started getting a lot of videos from young girls playing football, and people were telling me that I had inspired these girls,” she explained.
“They’re training at home, they’re doing the things I do, saying 'I want to be like Lili one day.' I said, 'I haven't done anything yet'. Compared to what I want to do, it’s nothing. If these little things can cause this much progression, I think one day, when I go abroad, it will be much bigger.
“My dream is to play in a European league, and as a pro, but for my country I hope I can go and learn, have the experience and come back to help people like me. I want to tell them 'yes, you can. If you’re a girl, it’s not a problem'.
“When I finish my career, I want to go back and, I don’t know, maybe open a club – just to help girls like me. I don’t want them to face the things I faced. I want to make it easy for them.”
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