Next Gen ATP Finals in Saudi Arabia raising profile of future tennis stars

Lebanon’s Bassel Jradi dreaming of AFC Champions League success with Bangkok United

RIYADH: Although most Arab eyes are on the west Asian half of the AFC Champions League group stage, there is representation in the east too.

Bangkok United are currently top of Group F, having been propelled by the performances of Palestine’s Mahmoud Eid and new summer arrival, Lebanon forward Bassel Jradi.

Jradi told Arab News: “I had interest from Asia for a little while, but I wanted to go to a top team here that was competing in the AFC Champions League and challenging for the title.

“Bangkok United is a huge team in Asia and it has been amazing so far as we haven’t lost a game; it feels like we are doing something special this season.”

Jradi and his teammates are undefeated in 14 matches across all competitions so far and sit at the summit of both the Thai Premier League and their AFC Champions League group. In the latter tournament, a milestone victory over South Korean heavyweights Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors has put Bangkok on the brink of a place in the last-16.

“We have to dream that we can go all the way but of course we are humble as well and take it game by game. First, we have to pass out of the group but of course then it is interesting to see who you draw.

“I’d be lying if I said we haven’t all thought about the potential that we play later against Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema. These are players who all of us look up to, generational talents,” Jradi said.

It is a first foray into Asia for Denmark-born Jradi, who had previously spent his entire career in Europe. He played for B.93, AB, and FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark before seeing the precocious talent of Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard first-hand at Norwegian club Stromsgodset.

“He (Odegaard) is comfortably the best player I have ever played with. He was very young but in the Norwegian league he was doing the kind of things you see him do now every week in the Premier League.

“Every day seeing him on the training ground, his talent was so obvious, even aged 16. I’m very happy he’s doing so well now because you see many big talents that start off well and fade away, but he is still at the top,” Jradi added.

Jradi would later swap Stromsgodset for Croatian side Hajduk Split and then Cypriots Apollon Limassol, with whom he won the domestic league title in the 2021 to 2022 season.

Jradi said: “There are differences with playing in Europe but for me the standard is as good here as I experienced in my last clubs in Croatia and Cyprus.

“Also, there is a level of professionalism and respect for players here that sometimes doesn’t exist in clubs in Europe. At Hajduk Split, they made me train with the reserves for six months because I didn’t sign a new contract. I could never see that happening here.

“Bangkok is a good place for me to be and I thank some of the other Lebanese players who have played in Southeast Asia; they have done well so there are good opinions about us here. Soony Saad (in Malaysia), Jihad Ayoub and Majed Osman (both in Indonesia) – these guys have all been playing well out here.”

Jradi represented Denmark internationally at every youth level up to U-21s but never made his senior debut for the country of his birth. When Lebanon came calling, he switched his allegiance.

“My parents are Lebanese, and I had been to Lebanon many times throughout my life, so I always felt it has been my country as much as Denmark. For me it’s an honor to play for Lebanon.

“Right now, we have a really good coaching staff and a really good group of players. There used to be a lot of politics around the national team but now there is more positivity, better training, and so much more professionalism. It is a different vibe in the team, and I have a good feeling about what is ahead,” he added.

Jradi has enjoyed plenty of highs playing for Lebanon but there have been some notable lows too. In September 2019, he was excluded from selection after turning down a call-up, something he later apologized for. That came a few months after his most difficult moment. While Lebanon agonisingly exited the 2019 Asian Cup at the group stage by a solitary goal, Jradi had already departed prematurely.

The forward left the squad after a disagreement with coach Miodrag Radulovic and while he maintained that the situation was handled poorly by his former boss, he also admitted that he reacted badly and that it remained a source of regret.

Jradi said: “After the first game I went to the coach and said we were good defensively but that I needed more support in attack as we were struggling to create chances.

“It was just a normal conversation, but he took it the wrong way and decided to bench me for the next game, and I didn’t take that well either.

“Then it escalated, and it ended up with me going. I asked him to say that I was injured but he came out and made a big thing out of it, saying I’d left the team.

“It still hurts but really it gives me huge motivation for this next Asian Cup in Qatar. The last one didn’t end well and to be honest I really feel as though I need to give something back for what has happened before. I want to give my absolute best and help Lebanon make it through the group.”

Jradi has come through a temporary international exile and a series of injury setbacks to get back to a place where he is enjoying playing again. Last year saw him have three surgeries in quick succession, but he is now optimistic about his football future.

“Last year was hell to be honest, just six months of really bad luck. It felt like every time I played, I would get injured. I took nearly three months off in the summer and when I moved to Bangkok I just felt like a new player.

“Now I feel my body is back to where it was before and I am ready to show that in the (AFC) Champions League and the Asian Cup,” he added.

Leave a Comment