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Omar Bugiel interview: Sutton striker on his journey from non-league to the EFL and the Lebanon national team

Sky Sports exclusive: Sutton United striker Omar Bugiel recounts the story of how he came to the UK from Germany as a teenager in 2010, grafted in non-league, became part of the Lebanese national setup and eventually made it to the Sky Bet EFL with the U's

Omar Bugiel knows about hard graft.

He has had to put plenty in to get where he is today - but there is no doubt he would not have it any other way.

There is pride in his voice as he details his story, but also an overriding tone of humility. It is a journey that has taken him from Munich, in his native Germany, to Worthing, Sutton and the Lebanese national team.

And it all started when he was a teenager back in 2010, as he discusses in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.

"I got released by 1860 Munich when I was 15 and my mum asked me if I would be interested in going abroad for a year and then coming back and carrying on studying," the 28-year-old explains. "When you are released early doors, it feels like your dream is over, so my main focus was education once football didn't work out.

"I went to Chichester College for one year, really enjoyed it and found a love for football again. We were doing a couple of courses, sessions and then playing football every day. That's what I loved because, every day, you were on a football pitch. Fast-forward more than 10 years and I'm still here!"

It was during that first year that he met former Brighton defender Adam Hinshelwood - his college tutor - and his dad - Crystal Palace legend, Paul - with the latter giving him a roof over his head while he found his way in the UK.

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He admits being indebted to them for the role they played in his career progression.

"They played the biggest part in my journey. Not many people let a stranger come into their house and stay with them, which is what I did for the first four or five years of being a lodger.

"Staying there helped massively as I was able to go and earn my own money and then pay rent. I worked behind a bar, at a golf club, at a supermarket and even ended up on a building site to earn money to save up for my first car because I wanted to do everything by myself. It wasn't easy, but I got it done.

"I still can't believe it to this day that they took me on board and looked after me like my own mother did. That's why I'm still in contact with them. They are just part of my family now and I will never forget what they have done for me."

Bugiel bounced around the non-league scene on the south coast for the first three years, turning out for Selsey, Burgess Hill and Bognor Regis, before joining Adam's Worthing side in 2014 - and staying there once he moved on to work in Brighton's academy.

He says it was "a horror show" when he first arrived at Woodside Road, but that things drastically changed when George Dowell bought the club in March 2015, things began to turn

"The club moved around a lot when George took over," he says. "He is one person I still speak to on social media because of the things he has done for the football club since I've left. Look at them now: They are an Isthmian Premier Division club pushing for promotion and I think they get up to 2,000 people for a game.

"It is a community football club and they give young players an opportunity where other clubs can't provide that. Going there as a young footballer knowing you will actually be playing makes a difference."

Forest Green were alerted to his talent after he hit double figures in three successive seasons and in February 2017, he signed for the club when they were still in the National League.

However, that move could, quite plausibly, have been over before it began.

"It was the craziest week of my life," he says, with a deep sigh. "I went there for a trial from Monday to Friday and they pulled me on the Friday and told me they wanted to sign me. I couldn't believe it was happening and then on Saturday, I made my debut, scored a goal and got an assist, which was a dream start.

"I put everything into it. If you speak to people who know me, they can back me on that because maybe I wasn't the most talented footballer, but with my graft and hard work where other people didn't graft, I deserved to make that move eventually.

"Not many people know, but on that day, I drove home to see my all friends to celebrate and my career could have literally been over in the space of a few hours. When I was driving home, I was going past Portsmouth, got a blown tyre suddenly and ended up crashing my car.

"I'm still grateful I walked away with no scratches. After that, I put my head down and was able to help the team to get promoted to the EFL."

During his time at Forest Green, a call came out of the blue.

"Once I started scoring a few goals, I got a random phone call from abroad, but I ignored it because I thought it was a scam call. My uncle [German actor Kida Khodr Ramadan] rung me up and asked why I had been ignoring the number - I didn't have a clue what he was talking about!

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Highlights of the Papa John's Trophy play-off match between Wigan Athletic and Sutton United

"He said it was the Lebanon manager trying to introduce himself and tell me about an opportunity to play for the national team - I was shocked. He has got a few contacts out there and he got involved with a sports director in Lebanon, telling them his nephew played in England and they should take a look at me.

"Once the season finished and we managed to get promoted, I flew to Beirut to get my passport sorted to try and get involved with the Asian Cup qualifying in 2017. I would never have believed I'd get a call for the national team; I know it's not the biggest country, but from playing for Worthing and eventually getting a national team call-up is great."

Having enjoyed trips there as a youngster, given his dad's heritage, the landscape was semi-familiar to Bugiel. It did take time for him to settle in, but he now has 10 international caps and hopes more will follow.

"It took a while to make my debut because I was the new guy in a team who had been playing together for a while and I was only 24, so they didn't really talk to me at the beginning. Luckily enough there were two other players with German parents and they spoke the language, so it was helpful to hang around with them.

"It took nearly a year to make my debut, which was against Singapore, and that was a really enjoyable moment. Even now I'm involved in World Cup qualifying games. It is a tight group and will be tough to make the third spot, but this month, going out there I'll make another dream come true being in the final round of qualifying for the World Cup."

In the meantime, though, there are pressing matters at domestic level.

Bugiel joined Sutton in 2019 and, after the 2019/20 campaign was curtailed early due to Covid, he helped them to the National League title last summer.

This term, Matt Gray's EFL newcomers have taken League Two by storm - they currently sit fourth, outside the automatic promotion spots by goal difference alone - and booked a place in the Papa John's Trophy final at the first time of asking with a 7-6 penalty shootout victory over Wigan on Tuesday.

He even scored the club's first goal as an EFL team - against Forest Green, ironically - on the opening day of the season - there was no celebrations, however.

The U's are riding the wave generated by last season's promotion - and they are not about to get off any time soon.

"We still can't believe how far we have come," he says. "We managed to keep most of the core of the team together, added a few players and then it is just a case of buying into the philosophy of the manager.

"I know we are not the biggest club and we haven't got the best players in the league, but it is just about the players you have on the pitch. We have got to be together and even if we lose games, the manager is not too down about it because we know we can try and put it right next game.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two match between Sutton United and Rochdale

"Now we are getting to the stage of the season where points do matter because we are going to start feeling the pressure from other teams who managed to strengthen their teams over the January window. We'll just see where it is going to take us.

"I don't think the pressure is on us - it is more on the bigger teams who have been in the league for several years. We are just the new guys and I don't think anyone takes us too seriously, but when they do play us at Gander Green Lane, they still tend to pick up a point most times because they think it is an easy place to come."

The archetypal phrase many footballers fall back on these days is that of taking it game-by-game, or words to that effect.

Bugiel laughs as he says just that. But he wants the season to progress in that manner - and then make the doubters eat their own words.

"It made me laugh at the beginning of the season because I saw some predictions and Sutton were rock bottom of the table," he recalls. "People didn't know about us or the way we played and then, when it came to matches, they saw that we aren't actually that bad.

"If we make the play-offs, the automatics or we just suddenly fall out of it, what we have achieved is great for the football club because I wouldn't believe we would be in the play-offs now if you had asked me two years ago.

"Hopefully we can keep going and achieve something people didn't believe we could."

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