“There is something about being Lebanese, you can never tell. I was born here, but when I went there as an adult, the first time we landed in Beirut, I really felt a strong connection to the place.”
Those were the words of Michael Cheika, the former head coach of Australia’s national rugby team, after he was inaugurated in November. as the man who led Lebanon in the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Born in Sydney to a Lebanese family, the 53-year-old is among 230,880 Australians with Middle Eastern ancestry, with around 66,000 Lebanese-born living in the Greater Sydney area alone.
Cheika’s parents emigrated in the 1950s, but many of them are tens of thousands of refugees who fled Lebanon during the country’s civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990. Out of the horror, however, emerged one of the more unpredictable rugby. league success story.
Next year’s World Cup in England will mark the 21st anniversary of the Cedars attending the sport’s global gathering, when a team of players based entirely in Australia provides the spark for the rugby league revolution.
This has shaped a sporting relationship between the Lebanese community in Australia and their homeland as well – and Danny Kazandjian, the man who pioneered the development of domestic sports in Lebanon in the early 2000s, knows how important it is.
“Academic papers have been written on the relationship between the Lebanese diaspora and the Lebanese rugby league project and how the two coexist to produce activity, visibility and longevity,” Kazandjian, now secretary general of the global governing body of sport of the International Rugby League, told Sky Sports.
“The emigration rate from Lebanon to Australia is lower than before, but there is still a very strong connection. There are many Lebanese I know in Australia, you would think you were in Lebanon.
“They speak Arabic, some of them don’t speak English very well, their home configuration is very Lebanese, they have Lebanese satellite TV and only watch Lebanese TV. Culturally, they have maintained links to their homeland even though they are separated by geography.”
The story of the Lebanese rugby league begins with John and George Elias forming the team for the 1997 World Seven Rugby League, graduating to full international matches the following year and qualifying for the 2000 World Cup with victories over Italy, Morocco and the US.
A 64-0 defeat to runners-up New Zealand in the rain at Gloucester’s Kingsholm was followed by a delightful display in a 24-22 defeat to Wales and a 22-22 draw with Cook Islands in the group stage.
Part of those granted permission to represent Lebanon was a gift to earn a rugby league in the country as well, with the British Kazandjian – whose ties to the nation stem from his parents who met while living there – seizing the opportunity to spearhead it in 2002 after made contact with Elias ahead of their first World Cup.
It was his work that led to a code of 13 people establishing a permanent presence in a country without the legacy of previous rugby league, starting with embedding it in university and spreading from there. On the international stage, it wasn’t until 2017 that Cedars qualified for the World Cup again.
Reaching the tournament’s quarter-finals in Australia ensures Lebanon automatically gets a place at next year’s World Cup and Cheika has seized the opportunity to coach the team after becoming one of their supporters three years ago.
“The tournament is an opportunity to show a little bit of Lebanese culture not only to Australians but to everyone watching on TV,” Cheika told Australia. Daily Telegraph.
This is a wonderful opportunity for me to do something that is representative of my parents’ homeland.
New Lebanon head coach Michael Cheika
“Sport has the ability to bring people together, it brings out the best in people. I watched the game, jumping around cheering and crying.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for me to do something that is representative of the land my parents come from.”
Cheika is not the first big name in Australia to lend its support behind the project, with NRL stars such as Hazem El Masri – formerly of the Canterbury Bulldogs, a club with a sizable support base among Sydney’s Lebanese community – and, more recently, Robbie Farah have worn the distinctive green and red uniform in the past.
The next step is to start integrating more players from Lebanon’s domestic competition into the national team rather than relying on legacy players based in Australia, something Cheika has indicated he wants to do.
The current arrangement sees the Lebanese Rugby League Federation (LRLF), bound by the country’s sports laws, overseeing national championships and state development programs, while at the same time mandating national teams to represent them and the states. Meanwhile, the expertise to run international campaigns mostly comes from Australia.
Kazandjian knows from his time running the LRLF and how relations between domestic regulatory agencies and the Australian arm have not always been smooth sailing, but added that tensions can be a force for good as well as the nation aims to build on relatively quickly. steps he has made over the past two decades.
“There is no point in any sport having a national team without a cultural identity, level of visibility or recognition at home and that’s something the Lebanese federation – as well as other countries with strong expatriate communities in Australia and Europe are fighting for,” said Kazandjian.
“The tension is always there, and there are advantages and disadvantages. The downside is that when tension becomes overly taught it can lead to enmity between the two bodies.
Jamaica aims to create the RLWC ‘shock wave’
Jamaica coach Jermaine Coleman told Sky Sports what it means to qualify for the World Cup and his hopes for 2021.
“When the two sides work together it can bring about very positive results as we have seen with the good news about Lebanon – most recently was Michael Chieka taking over as coach and his faith in the project. It’s a double edged sword and something. which they have to deal with in a calm manner. “