A first match for Lebanon and Grandpa
The last time Pilar Khoury visited her parents' homeland was in June 2018 to reconnect with aunts and cousins. The French-Ontarian soccer player from Ottawa is in Lebanon again these days, but for different reasons.
The 26-year-old striker will make her debut for the Lebanese national team. She was recruited for a series of international meetings in Armenia starting next Monday. She will play matches against Lithuania, Jordan, and the host nation.
“It's amazing to come back here, not only to see family again, but to represent my family's country,” said Khoury, who notably played with the University of Ottawa Gee Gees before making the jump to the pros in Europe five years ago.
Her mother Marie and her father Tony immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s, choosing to start their family in the capital. They have three children, of whom Pilar is the eldest.
“My parents were planning to return to live in Lebanon. But with the wars and the state the country found itself in, that never happened.”
Khoury was educated at Lycée-Claudel before ending up in health sciences classes at the University of Ottawa. She wore the colours of the Gee Gees for five seasons, helping the team to two bronze medals at the Canadian Championships.
The goalkeeper coach, David Bellemare, put her in contact with a French coach who was visiting Gatineau at the time. The latter was looking for a player to fill out the lineup of a team in France.
Khoury was able to make her debut with ASPTT Albi in 2016. Then it was a move to Grenoble Foot 38 for a year before joining AS Saint-Etienne (ASSE) in the second division. It has been her club since July 2019, scoring seven goals in 14 games, including one in the French Cup.
This adventure among the pros is also somewhat the business of her maternal grandfather Louis Saad.
"I never really told this story. My grandfather was my mentor. My hero. You could say he was the one who taught me everything about soccer. Before he passed away (in 2013), he asked me to go get my passport. He told me I had to keep believing in myself and my dream, that it would eventually happen."
Khoury didn't believe as much that this dream would come true. "I had a little doubt," she confides.
"You know when someone in your family says all that, you want to tell them they're not being objective since they love you," she adds in the same breath.
When the French coach knocked on her door, Khoury was happy to have her passport in hand. Due to the pandemic, this season is proving to be anything but normal.
AS Saint-Étienne has not played since the end of last fall, being limited to six games. Khoury had already amassed four goals, which caught the attention of Lebanon.
"We've been practicing every day since November. But it's very difficult mentally. You're used to having competitions throughout the year."
What adds a layer of frustration? The men's championships have never stopped.
"We in the women's, there's just the first division that has continued. The French government will decide at the end of April whether to resume or not. So it's good timing to come to Lebanon. If the competition had resumed, I wouldn't have been able to spend so much time here. It's good in terms of motivation to get back into competition."
New teammates, new role
Khoury was a little nervous joining the Lebanese national team this weekend. "I don't know anyone," she said.
"But the players have all been welcoming and warm to me. You're always apprehensive about starting over and finding a role on a team and getting along with your new teammates. I can speak a little Lebanese. And the other girls also speak French and English. That helps a lot."
The Lebanese roster is proving to be young. So is the National Women's Program founded in the mid-2000s.
"The new generation is very strong. The U19s recently won a championship in Asia. The idea is to bring these players to the senior team."
Pilar Khoury was looking forward to playing a first game in the Cedars uniform at the 'Women International Friendly Tournament' from April 5 to 11. Somewhere in the clouds there is a grandfather who will be an attentive spectator.
"He never missed any of my little brother, sister and my games. I do think he's proud of my work.
I would say I feel him even more present... I feel like he's cheering me on."