Fittler proud to be immersed in Lebanese culture

???Freddy Fittler was born in Auburn hospital which, considering the many descendants of Lebanese immigrants who live in the suburb and its surrounds, makes the former n rugby league captain eligible to coach the Cedars in this World Cup.

Well, that’s the view of John Georges of the Lebanese Rugby League Federation and why not?

If it’s good enough for federal politicians to entitle themselves to dual citizenship, why not rugby league footballers?

Fittler shares the view of many former players and coaches that this World Cup, where his team will play Tonga in a quarter-final, has been a spectacular success because of the sacrifices of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita who declined positions in the New Zealand and n teams, respectively, and chose to represent Tonga, the country of their heritage.

“The sacrifice of those boys set up the World Cup and its subsequent success,” Fittler said, agreeing it arrested the elitist sneering of the rugby union fraternity who scoffed at the World Cup’s relaxed qualification criteria that allowed so many NRL players to represent nations other than and New Zealand.

“For whatever reason any player who made a decision not on finance to play in this World Cup, it’s a good decision,” Fittler said.

“Our players are on $30 a day and most of them are losing the $500 a day they could get from their jobs.

“Ten years ago, with better employment and wage conditions, you could do it but not today.”

Admittedly, Rugby League Central, via the NRL’s year-round contract system, is funding many of the players but the majority of Fittler’s Cedars play in lower-tier leagues.

His team also includes many Muslims who mix amiably with the descendants of the Maronite Christians who migrated from the mountains in the north of Lebanon before World War I to establish communities in , beginning with Redfern.

If today’s politicians can harbour loyalty to two countries, consider the historical hypocrisy of the n government’s cruel treatment of some of those early Lebanese who enlisted.

The enlistment papers of 21-year-old Richard Lahood shows he was born in the parish of Mount Lebanon and was a rope worker who lived at Elizabeth Street, Redfern. As to whether he was naturalised or a natural-born British subject, “Dick”, as he preferred to be called, ticked the latter box. Yet he had a short military career, with his papers stamped “Enemy Subject”, presumably because Lebanon was then part of the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turkish enemy.

Yet 33-year-old John Mansour, who was born in the same village, lived at Philip Street, Redfern, described himself as a “dealer” and also declared he was a British subject, served as a private on the battlefields of France.

When Kangaroo winger Josh Mansour, who never declared he would play for Lebanon while awaiting n selection, dropped the ball with the line wide open in the match against Lebanon at the Sydney Football Stadium, he attracted the biggest cheer of the night from the predominantly Lebanese crowd

Perhaps, it was also an echo down through the ages.

After all, perceived advantage, particularly privilege, lies at the heart of sport rivalries and it is strongest in the working- and middle-class game of rugby league. The view that someone has an inherited, undeserved and unjust advantage over another, like the power imbalance in a bad marriage, fuels division.

Fittler inherently understands this and it is why, all his life, he has fought against discrimination, even at the level of maintaining friendships with his mates from school who may not have reached his level of wealth and status.

Given the tensions in Lebanon at present with the impending failure of their power-sharing arrangements, Fittler seems to have done a better job with the Cedars than the politicians have with the country.

“We have six or seven Muslims in the team,” Fittler said.

The team bus stops for the Muslims to pray while Fittler and others respectfully face the direction of Mecca.

Fittler took the Cedars to the western Sydney school, not far from where he grew up, where a car crashed into a classroom killing two eight-year-old boys.

He said of the school which draws pupils from the Muslim community, “We spoke to the kids and spent time with them”.

Freddy has immersed himself in Lebanese culture, learning the anthem, enjoying the food and beating the drums.

He plans to visit Beirut with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, whose heritage is Lebanese.

The two coaches may represent rival codes but they are as indistinguishable in their passion as the varieties of cedar trees.

Fittler’s team stopped at St Saviours Cathedral, Goulburn, to touch the wood of the cedar libani, grown from seeds brought from Lebanon.

Yet when the team stayed at a hotel in Canberra ahead of their game against France, they walked past cedars lining Commonwealth Avenue where even botanists are uncertain whether they are true cedars of Lebanon.

Obviously, none of Fitter’s team could tell the difference, neatly symbolising the team unity this very special man has achieved and the power of rugby league to integrate.

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