MITCHELL TIERNEY, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER (@MITCHELLTIERNEY)
For nearly three and a half hours Gabriel Bitar waited patiently.
Through all the meticulously choreographed lights, dancing, singing, speeches, firework displays and a colossal replica of the Asian Cup trophy at the tournament’s opening ceremony. Through the opening 80 minutes of the match, during which the hosts, and defending AFC Asian Cup champions, Qatar further ignited the crowd at Lusail Stadium with a pair of well-taken goals.
Finally, in the 80th minute of this past month’s 2023 AFC Asian Cup opener between Qatar and Lebanon, Bitar’s number 24 was called. The Vancouver FC attacker jogged onto the field in front of the 82,490 supporters and millions more watching across the globe on TV.
Bitar’s Lebanon national team would go on to concede once more in stoppage time, and fall 3-0 to the eventual finalists Qatar, but for Bitar just getting to step onto that historic pitch was the highlight of his tournament.
“It is something that you can’t really explain how it feels,” Bitar told CanPL.ca. It is just one of those moments that you have to really take in for yourself and it is really motivating me now. I really want to get back to that because I know that’s really what football is about, and that’s what motivates players. For me it was that first game, coming on in front of 80,000 in one of the most iconic stadiums. I mean the World Cup final was played there so my idols have played there.”
It has been a long journey for Bitar to get to step onto the pitch made famous by Messi and Mbappe. The Ottawa, Ontario native was selected first overall by Cavalry in the inaugural CPL – U SPORTS Draft and was selected again by the Alberta club the next season (sixth overall), but only ever played one match.
After four years with the Carleton Ravens in U SPORTS, he spent a short stint with Ansar in the Lebanese Premier League in 2021. That is when Bitar, whose parents were both born in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, first came onto the radar of the Lebanese federation. While it didn’t work out with Ansar, Bitar returned to Canada in 2022, and signed with the Canadian Premier League’s FC Edmonton.
Under head coach Alan Koch, Bitar was a standout player during a difficult season for the club, finishing the campaign with five goals and an assist. That is when the calls started to come in earnest from the federation.
“I think when I signed for Edmonton they had been keeping tabs for that time and so after good performances and stuff like that they would reach out and we would stay in contact,” said Bitar. “I think after the Edmonton season is when I got my first call-up to the national team and from there I had a good camp, I did well and we just kept in contact throughout that time.”
Bitar spent this past season with expansion side Vancouver FC, where he again became a key player with six goals — tied for most on the club — and two assists. After the year with Vancouver, Lebanon came calling again, this time to bring him to a preparation camp for the Asian Cup. He and 30 other players went to Lebanon, a group that eventually needed to be whittled down to 23 after two-and-a-half weeks of training for the final tournament roster. Bitar made the cut.
“It was something that I could never really dream of, playing in those stadiums being a part of an environment like that was something that a footballer always dreams of and wants to do every single day,” said Bitar. “That’s what we work towards, so for that opportunity to come about was truly something special for me and my family.”
In Qatar, Lebanon came painfully close to advancing past the group stage for the first time in the country’s history. The Cedars drew 0-0 with China in their second match, one in which Bitar did not feature. Then, in their group stage finale against Tajikistan, Lebanon scored early in the second half to take a 1-0 lead, a result that if held would have seen them through to the knockout stage.
Instead, a red card nine minutes later and two late goals for Tajikistan ended their tournament. Bitar was part of a desperate final push after subbing on for the final eight minutes, plus fifteen minutes of stoppage time. But down a man, Lebanon failed to mount a comeback.
“It was a tough way to leave the tournament but I really think that it was a positive thing for me, and also for the country of Lebanon,” said Bitar. “We really showed that we can get things done and we can win games against these top countries so hopefully in the future we can get some big results.”
As a player, the tournament was a window into what the next level of football looks like for Bitar. His time in Qatar will be invaluable for him as he returns to the Canadian Premier League this upcoming season.
“Seeing these guys like Son Heung-min, seeing all these countries with top players really move at that speed and being just as technical as any pro player was really something that made me think to myself, ‘wow there really is a whole new level that we have as players to get into’,” said Bitar. “It is definitely something that I’m going to keep in the back of my mind.”
Having never played at a level quite like this before, Bitar was able to lean on the experience of his Vancouver FC coach, Afshin Ghotbi. The 60-year-old Ghotbi has a long resumé of international experience including several stints as both an assistant and head coach of national teams that compete in the AFC. He was an assistant manager for South Korea at the 2002 World Cup, and managed Iran at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
“He was very helpful throughout the tournament,” said Bitar. “We had a couple of chats throughout the tournament really just telling me what to expect, giving me the confidence that I need as a player to go on the field and really show myself. I’m really grateful for that and hopefully, we can build off of these experiences [in the CPL] this year and see how it goes.”
While in Qatar, Bitar was proud of the opportunity he got to represent the Canadian Premier League as a whole at one of the biggest tournaments in World football. He says that giving players the opportunity to aspire to dreams like this that maybe wouldn’t have been possible before its existence.
“That’s what the CPL is all about,” said Bitar. “A couple of years ago when Edmonton came about, Alan Koch took a chance on a player like me who didn’t have the best resumé and wasn’t in the best of places. I think that’s what it is all about, the CPL has a lot of great players that just need to be put on a platform. I was just lucky enough to be one of those players. Hopefully, through the next couple of seasons we can really have more players get those international caps and get moves to bigger leagues throughout the world.”
Bitar now turns his attention to CPL pre-season, and looking to pick up where he left off in 2023. Both Vancouver FC and Bitar finished the season in outstanding form. Bitar found the back of the net five times in VFC’s final nine matches of the season, including a brace against rivals Pacific, with the club picking up five wins. After an off-season that has seen the club add experienced CPLers like Paris Gee, David Norman and Ben Fisk, he believes that Vancouver have one of the best teams in the league on paper. Now they just have to prove it.
“We brought in some more experienced players to kind of get us through those rough patches and really lead us,” said Bitar. “We didn’t really have that last year at the beginning of the year when we struggled we kind of stayed in certain ditches. Hopefully, these pickups could be a big part of the leadership group and really carry us throughout the season.”
For Lebanon, up next is FIFA World Cup qualifying, where they currently sit second in their group, which includes Australia, Palestine and Bangladesh. They play the Aussies in a pair of massive matches in March. Lebanon has never before qualified for a World Cup, but with an expanded 48-team tournament in 2026, there has perhaps never been a better opportunity.
“My goal is to just keep getting called up and keep getting caps, and just be a part of the federation for as long as my career goes,” said Bitar. “I love playing for Lebanon, it is a beautiful country with beautiful fans. They really deserve something special, and hopefully we can give them that something special.”