The well-travelled goalkeeper talks about his experiences as a professional overseas.
By Nick Boffa
At the age of 25, Melbourne-born Mark Aouad already has a range of career experiences to match most veterans of the game. The Australian goalkeeper boasts an impressive resume that includes top-flight youth football in England, Italy and Australia with first-team experience in Slovenia, Montenegro and Serbia. Like most professional footballers, he is waiting for the game to re-start and passing the time at home with family and friends – something of a rarity for the modern professional.
Most recently, Aouad had made the move to Beirut to suit up for Al-Safa in the Lebanese Premier League before the shutdown came into effect. It is the latest stop on a blossoming career for Aouad – born in Melbourne of shared Lebanese and Egyptian heritage. Aouad, who possesses a deep insight into the workings of the professional game, personifies the risk and sacrifice of young Australian players looking to make their mark abroad.
The goalkeeper began his footballing journey in the suburbs of Melbourne, playing for Reservoir United and Bundoora FC. A chance connection with an agent from the United Kingdom led to trials across England before he signed for Stoke City at the age of 14. The youngster spent the best part of four years in the academy at Stoke, taking in various loan spells, including Derby County, before being released just short of his 18th birthday. A connection via Stoke City led the young custodian to Italy where he continued his footballing education at Genoa in their primavera side – the equivalent of an U/19 side in Italy.
Whilst the goalkeeping training was positive in Italy, Aouad found it more challenging culturally and was soon on the move again. He had developed a good relationship (a constant theme in his career) with Serbian Veljko Paunović, formerly a player with Athletico Madrid, whilst the coach was utilising Genoa players in exercises to gain his coaching badges. This connection took the 188cm Aouad to Serbia and top flight leagues around the Balkans including Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Aouad plied his trade successfully over four seasons, including first team appearances for the likes of Partizan Belgrade, before an agent contacted him over Instagram enquiring about his interest in a potential move to the Lebanese Premier League. Despite his initial scepticism about the merits of a move away from Europe, the lure of selection in the Lebanese national team persuaded the Melburnian to trial with Al-Ansar, arguably the biggest club in Lebanon. “There was some interest in me from sides in the Gulf (Middle East) but the catch was, you needed to be a capped international,” he explains. Whilst the initial trial didn’t yield a contract, a relationship with a former youth coach from Victoria, now in charge of the Lebanon women’s team, set up the opportunity with current club Al-Safa.
“I was a free agent at the time so I thought, why not?”
After training with Al-Safa in December 2018, Aouad returned to his European base in Serbia to prepare and headed off to sign with the Beirut-based club in January 2019.
“At this time now, Matty Ryan and others have cemented the Australian goalkeeping role so I’ve got a much better chance to get international caps with Lebanon.”
With such varied career experiences so far, its little wonder that Aouad possesses a comprehensive understanding of the global football landscape. Like any professional, he is acutely aware of making himself as employable as possible. Many passionate fans find it hard to comprehend the widespread trend of footballers choosing to play for national sides outside their country of birth, but it’s blatantly clear that status as a capped international greatly increases a player’s professional prospects. Aouad is clear, as good professionals are, about the potential benefits of the next move in a club career. Strategically, a move to Lebanon would be worth leaving Europe if it delivered international football. “Just before the (Covid-19) shutdown, I was supposed to attend a national team training camp. So it was a bit of bad luck but there’s still an opportunity to head back over and give it another go.”
“Beirut is actually not great for a footballer because the nightlife, cafes and the lifestyle are incredible.”
Aside from ambitions with the national side, it is clear that Aouad enjoyed his time in Lebanon before the shutdown caused him to return to Melbourne. “In fact, the league paused a few weeks before covid-19 due to some political instability.” Aouad had the benefit of having family in Beirut to ease the transition and he retains a strong affinity for the city. “It is a really nice city with really welcoming people who like to enjoy themselves. The places around Beirut are great too, with nice coastline. It’s a really nice place to live,” he explains.
“In the end, all the experiences were good for my development.”
In addition to his knowledge of the machinations of the football industry, Aouad has an acute understanding of his own game and his strengths as a goalkeeper. From idolising Petr Cech growing up to pinpointing the big influences on his career so far, he is able to assess himself and his experiences with clarity. “English football taught me to grow up and I developed a thick skin there,” he recalls. “Italy, from a goalkeeping perspective, was the best coaching I got by far. On the field, it (Italy) was the best for my technical development. But in the Balkans, I got more first team opportunities because they give their young players more chances. At the end of the day, all the experiences were good for my development.”
The ‘keeper is reflective about those that he considers to be the biggest influences so far, naming Andy Quy at Stoke and Aleksander Saric at FK Cukaricki in Serbia among them. He particularly remembers former Croatia international Joey Didulica from his time at Melbourne City U/21 in the 2015-16 season for highlighting the need to work on his distribution, now among his biggest assets as a goalkeeper. “I hadn’t had a kick up the bum for a while until he (Didulica) gave me one.” Didulica, who also played with Ajax, gave the then-19-year-old some home truths. “He basically told me this was as far as I’d make it if I couldn’t distribute on both feet. So I just worked on it every day until I could kick half-way on both feet,” explains Aouad. Regarding his biggest strength as a player and a ‘keeper, Aouad is definitive; his ability to cope with high-pressure scenarios. “There are certainly more talented players than me that don’t go as far as they should if they can’t deal with the pressure.”
“Football gives you so many friendships around the world and they’re lifetime friendships.”
Given the far-reaching trajectory of his professional journey thus far, it is little wonder that Mark Aouad can articulate the personal sacrifices required of a player to forge his or her career abroad. “It is difficult moving around a lot especially when you stay somewhere for a while and form relationships. But if you’re professional, your social life can often take a back seat in any job,” Aouad reasons. This reflects the sacrifices that budding professionals must be prepared to make and it’s clear that Aouad is committed to his profession. In his opinion, it is essential to compete with other players, often from less wealthy parts of the world, who are also willing to uproot and move to play professionally. Aouad knows this is just one of many challenges facing Australian players, also highlighting barriers such as the rising cost of playing in his country of birth and the rules around signing non-EU players as barriers. For now, with the global shutdown of football looking likely to end, Aouad is plotting his next move amid interest from Europe and the potential to return to Lebanon. “I’ll need to make a decision in the next month or two but right now, I’m waiting (for things to re-start) like most other players.”