It is not the best time to be Lebanese. The country is suffering from yet another political stalemate and finds itself in the midst of a bad economic situation just as Israel is becoming noisier again. The people are fed up and angry. But there might be one thing they can look forward to.
The Lebanese football team is going to participate in the Asian Cup next month, after qualifying for the first time in history. The only other time we saw our football team play in a major tournament was back in 2000, when we hosted the Asian Cup and finished bottom of our group with two draws and one defeat from our three games. However, this time promises to be very different for the Cedars, with them finding themselves in the best moment in their history.
Football has always been the most popular sport in Lebanon, but the Basketball National Team always had more focus as it achieved much greater success than its football counterpart, qualifying for the World Cup on three occasions and coming second in Asia three times, with multiple Lebanese clubs winning Asian titles. Even the Rugby League team has had international success recently, beating France and narrowly losing in the quarter-finals in the last world cup. But finally, after a really long wait, it is time for football to take centre stage.
It has been a long journey. We finished bottom of our 2010 World Cup qualifying group with 0 points and a -11 goal difference, and then later bottom of our 2011 Asian Qualifying group. But then the rise began under the German head coach Theo Bucker, who oversaw a record-breaking qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup which saw us reach the last stage for the first time ever, beating South Korea and Iran on the way. Bucker was replaced by Roma and Italy’s legendary player Giuseppe Giannini and we were one goal away from qualifying for the 2015 Asian Cup. We also played the Brazil under 21 team which included players such as goalkeeper Ederson (currently of Man City), Barcelona’s Rafinha and Bayer Leverkusen’s Wendell and, although we drew 2-2, we were unlucky not to win, with a valid goal being disallowed for offside and Brazil’s late equalizer which should have been ruled out for the same reason. This performance gave us great confidence ahead of the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup. Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic was appointed and, although we missed out on the last stage of World Cup qualifying, we had begun improving and were in good shape ahead of the last stage of qualifiers for the Asian Cup.
We were drawn in a group with North Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong. We started out with a comfortable 2-0 victory at home to Hong Kong, before a 94th minute goal from Ataya saw us overturn a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 in Malaysia. Our squad then travelled to North Korea for the first official international game on North Korean soil since 2011. In a difficult and intimidating environment, Lebanon scored another goal in stoppage-time to seal a 2-2 draw despite going down to 10 men. When North Korea came to Beirut, we pulled off our best performance of the campaign and made a statement of intent as we beat them 5-0, only six years after they had participated in the World Cup. This win all but sealed our qualification for the tournament with two games to spare. We won 1-0 in Hong Kong and then another last-minute winner gave us a 2-1 win at home to Malaysia.
Our qualification was down to resilience, hard work and a fantastic team spirit and togetherness that we haven’t seen too often in our National Team. This is in a big part down to the work of head coach Miodrag Radulovic, who gave confidence to the players that they were capable of achieving their dreams against the odds. This belief saw us go on a 16-game unbeaten run between March 2016 and October 2018. We have also climbed up the FIFA rankings from 144th in the world when Radulovic took over in 2015, to 77th in September, our highest ever ranking.
Radulovic has built a young side from a strong core of locally-based players. Goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil, who plays for Lebanese champions Ahed, has improved remarkably in the past two years and is a very reliable figure in goal. Defenders Ali Hamam and Nour Mansour, of Nejmeh and Ahed respectively, are solid figures in defence and put their bodies on the line for the team on a regular basis. Ahed’s Haitham Faour is the key component in midfield with his strong tackling and composure on the ball and Rabih Ataya and Mohammad Haidar, both also of Ahed, provide the creativity and flair in attacking areas. But it is captain Hassan Maatouk of Nejmeh who is the star and leader of this team. In the words of Theo Bucker, he “is a once in a generation kind of player” and his goals and assists have been vital to Lebanon’s success. His fantastic dribbling ability has even drawn comparisons with his idol Lionel Messi and he is arguably the most talented player to ever wear the red shirt. In fact, he is one goal away from becoming the joint greatest ever goalscorer in Lebanon’s history, and we will all be hoping he reaches that milestone during the Asian Cup. As the qualifiers progressed, Radulovic supplemented the core of locally-based players with players who play abroad to strengthen the quality of the team and add valuable professional experience. This has seen the arrival of Joan Oumari -who was played in Germany, Turkey, UAE and most recently Japan, as well as strikers Hilal El Helwe and Omar Bugiel, who play in Greece and England respectively. More recently, we have seen the arrival of Swedish-based pair Alexander and Felix Michel as well as the return of Bassel Jradi after a three-year absence. This absence was due to Jradi’s hesitation over whether to represent Denmark, the country of his birth, or Lebanon, the country of his heritage, but he finally made his decision to represent the latter last month. Jradi is a fantastic addition to the squad as he was one of the best players in the Norwegian league before moving this summer to Croatian giants Hajduk Split. This squad represents not only the religious diversity in Lebanon, with both Muslims and Christians among this group of players, but also the diversity of the Lebanese Diaspora. Indeed, there are three players born in Sweden (Abbas Hassan and the Michel brothers), three born in Germany (Oumari, El Helwe and Bugiel), one born in Denmark (Bassel Jradi), one in Norway (Adnan Haidar), one in Bulgaria (Samir Ayass), one in the USA (Soony Saad), one in Sierra Leone (Mehdi Khalil) and one in Ivory Coast (Nader Matar).
Lebanon has been drawn in the “Group of Death” for the Asian Cup alongside Saudi Arabia, Qatar and North Korea. However, instead of seeing this as a sign of how difficult it will be, this title should be proof of how far we have come and that we can compete at this level. In fact, in the last few friendlies, we have shown exactly that by beating Jordan 1-0 in their own backyard and going very close to beating Uzbekistan (the score was 0-0), who are one of the best teams in Asia. Even in the game against Australia, we had spells where we showed our strength and put them under pressure even if we ended up losing 3-0. Besides, during that game it was the physicality and fitness of the Australian team that we struggled with the most and that won’t be as much of a problem against Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are not as physical and who play a style of play which is less physically intense.
Since our qualification was confirmed, Radulovic and the players have worked extremely hard in preparation for the tournament, focusing particularly on defensive solidity and tactical organization, which has proved effective as we have been very hard to break down and kept 3 clean sheets from our last 5 games. And we may not be favourites, but we have already shown that we are a better side than North Korea and are above Qatar in the FIFA rankings, with their recent results including a 2-0 defeat to the same Uzbekistan side who couldn’t even get a shot on target against us. I’m not saying this because I think this proves we are better than Qatar; the truth is that Qatar have a much bigger budget than us and their players play in better leagues than ours. However, we have showed that we can compete at this level and should not be scared but confident. Even Saudi Arabia, who were at the last World Cup, could only draw against Jordan last month. These teams are clearly not out of our reach and with our great team spirit, our resilience and a combination of our defensive solidity and our attacking flair, without forgetting Hassan Maatouk who is one of the best players in the Middle East, we belong on this stage.
The whole country as well as Lebanese all around the world have waited for the chance to cheer their nation at a major football tournament, and with our Golden Generation of players and a great coaching staff, we can look forward to next month’s tournament with the belief that Lebanon will compete at least to go through to the Second Round and the assurance that our players will make us proud. It is time to get behind the team and yell: “Yalla Lebnen”.