- Goalkeeper Mahdi Khalil impressive during Qatar 2022 qualifiers
- Just one goal conceded in four games
- The Cedars currently second in Group H
Lebanon is a Mediterranean country known for its geographic diversity, particularly the high mountain ranges in the east and west that extend in parallel lines almost the entire length of the country.
But Lebanon has yet another towering “mountain” in the form of gifted keeper Mahdi Khalil, who has made his goal an impenetrable fortress by keeping clean sheets in his country’s last three matches in the AFC qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
The 1.96 m shot-stopper spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his country’s qualifying campaign, in which the Cedars currently lie second in Group H on seven points, level with Korea Republic, where the remaining group games will all be held in the coming weeks.
The 29-year-old described the qualifiers as “difficult” because they “include a strong team like Korea Republic and very sophisticated sides like Turkmenistan.”
Asked about the secret behind his exceptional performances in the qualifiers, where he has only conceded one goal in four matches, Khalil replied with a laugh, saying: “There is no secret, really. It’s simple, I train with a lot of enthusiasm and work hard to achieve positive results. It’s a blessing from God, and I hope I’ll continue to do well both at club and national level.”
Khalil began his football journey in Sierra Leone as a 12-year-old before going on loan for two professional stints to Sweden. In 2013, he moved to Lebanon to join Safa SC, where he won the Lebanese league twice, before continuing his success there with Al Ahed Club with another two league titles.
Khalil played his part in Lebanon’s qualification for the Asian Cup in 2019, the same year he helped Al Ahed become the first Lebanese club to win the AFC Cup, picking up the tournament’s MVP award in the process. Interest followed from IR Iran’s Zob Ahan, who took him on loan at the beginning of last year.
Asked about the vast experience gained thus far in his career, the player known as ‘The Mountain’ said: “Winning the AFC Cup with Al Ahed helped me improve my performance. I was also named the Most Valuable Player with the help of my team-mates, who played brilliantly and contributed to the success.
“In every match I play, whether for club or country, I gain new experiences, but the most important thing for me as a player is to be physically and mentally alert so as to give my best in every game.”
Regarding his move to IR Iran, he said: “The beginning of my experience was good, and I learned a great deal from playing against big teams there. I matured considerably, and that was reflected in my performances. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the death of my father, I was affected psychologically and emotionally. Everything was turned on its head, and the experience ended abruptly.”
Tough confrontations ahead
Khalil will be one of the key team members coach Jamal Taha will be relying on for Lebanon’s next three matches in the Qatar 2022 qualifiers: Sri Lanka (5 June), Turkmenistan (9 June) and Korea Republic (13 June).
The keeper, who welcomed his first child last week, said: “We have three matches left, two of which will be high level encounters. We must do our best in these games to hopefully gain nine points and keep alive our chances of advancing to the next round.
“I don’t think our mission is impossible, but at the same time it’s not easy, and we have to fight until the last minute. If we have the utmost faith in ourselves and our abilities, we can achieve our goals and get closer to the World Cup.”
Lebanon’s final fixture will be against hosts Korea Republic, who have an array of top professionals in their ranks led by Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heungmin. As it happens, Khalil has faced Son before and prevented him from scoring in a match at Beirut Sports City Stadium on 14 November 2019.
“I’ve played against South Korea twice before. I performed well, and I think those two matches were the best of my career,” he said.
“The Koreans have many top players, and this gives me a huge incentive to perform really well and show my abilities. Facing stars who play in the top European leagues is a personal challenge for me,” he said at the end of conversation.
Khalil’s supreme confidence is another reason why the Lebanese believe they can still reach the third and decisive round of qualifiers for Qatar 2022. After all, they have a ‘Mountain’ they can lean on.