The AFL world is indeed a small one, as veteran Australian sports journalist Michael Reid discovered last week.
On a three-month United Nations assignment in Beirut, Reid at the weekend travelled deep into countryside north-east of the capital for lunch with two friends, one Australian, the other Lebanese.
They went to a restaurant, the Matal al-widyan, which (he told ESPN) overlooks the spectacular wadi Jahannam, or “valley of hell”, about 140km north-east of Beirut.
They couldn’t help notice a large and rather voluble group of men in the restaurant, more than 40 of them tucking into the local delicacies and making speeches in Arabic. One of them was proudly showing the others a photograph which obviously meant a lot to him.
The waiter, who had discovered that Michael’s party included two Australians, came over to tell them the other group also included many Australians, and that one was the father of a famous Australian sportsman.
Who was that, and what sport did the son play, they asked, intrigued.
The waiter made a gesture with his arm that vaguely resembled a throwing motion, so they assumed it was a cricketer. They looked up Wikipedia for Lebanese Australian cricketers and could only find someone who played a game or two for the Australian under-19 team.
“So we were thinking maybe the proud dad was playing up his boy’s sporting prowess in Australia to his mates in the old country,” Michael told ESPN.
“But no, when they had finished their meal, they started wandering over in dribs and drabs to our table, curious that some fellow Aussies would be in this rather obscure little mountain eatery, three hours out of Beirut.”
And that’s when they were introduced to Malek el-Houli – father of Bachar Houli, Richmond’s premiership star.
Turns out Malek is the head of the Newport Islamic Society in Melbourne’s western suburbs and was part of a large delegation from Victoria attending a civic function at the restaurant.
They were there to hand over some money they had raised to help build a school back in the rural district where they once lived. Many in Melbourne’s Lebanese community, including Malek’s family and friends, apparently moved to the western suburbs from this part of Lebanon.
It was then that Malek produced his prized photo – the one he’d been showing his Lebanese friends – featuring him and Bachar just after the final siren holding aloft the AFL premiership cup, the dutiful son having gone over to the boundary fence to greet his family in the crowd.
Michael wondered what Malek thought of the decision to award Dustin Martin the Norm Smith Medal for best afield when, according to many good judges, his son, the dashing half-back with the jet-black beard, could have got the nod.
They roared their approval: yes, said Malek and his friends – one of whom ran a fish-and-chip shop in Greensborough which Mick remembered from his youth – of course Bachar should have won the medal.
“We had a great old chinwag and discussed how Bachar was robbed of the Norm Smith. Meanwhile, just across the border, the remnants of ISIS were being chased down. Small world,” Michael said.