The build-up to Lebanon’s decisive game against North Korea

Since the defeat to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, all the talk has been about Lebanon’s final group game against North Korea, scheduled for Thursday at 8pm local time at the football stadium in Sharjah. And rightly so, given that this game is Lebanon’s final chance at making it to the last 16 for the first time in its history.

The main story that has been making the headlines this week has been regarding Bassel Jradi, the professional player at Croatia’s Hajduk Split. When the lineups for the Lebanon vs Saudi Arabia game were released, Jradi’s exclusion surprised everyone and as the lineups were released we were being told that he had picked up an injury and been asked to return to his club for treatment. But when Hassan Maatouk was interviewed after the game, he revealed that Jradi, upon learning of his absence from the starting eleven, sent a message to the coach saying that he refused to sit on the bench behind the Lebanese players as he is much better than them. This angered head coach Miodrag Radulovic, who decided to expel him from the squad for the rest of the tournament. In fact, in his post-match press conference, Radulovic announced that Jradi’s career with the Lebanese National Team is over, and Wael Akram Chehayeb, head of the Lebanese football delegation in the UAE and member of the Lebanese Football Association’s executive committee, confirmed that the reasons for Jradi’s expulsion from the team were concerning his behaviour and discipline. Back to Maatouk’s interview, the captain said that this is not Jradi’s first problem with the National Team and that he had to speak to him after issues occurred during the camp in Bahrain. He also said that given Jradi is a professional footballer playing in Europe he should act in a more professional manner and show respect towards his teammates and the coaching staff and understand the value of playing for the National Team. He added that Jradi should be grateful just to be with them considering he didn’t participate in the Qualifiers. This is a very disappointing situation, especially given Jradi’s worth to the team, but nothing excuses his behaviour and he should respect the coach’s decision no matter what. Besides, Mohammad Haidar, who replaced him in the starting eleven, played much better than Jradi did against Qatar. Now, I don’t believe that this is necessarily the end for Jradi’s journey with the National Team. Once Radulovic leaves, which he may well do straight after the tournament, a new coach may very well look to bring him back into the team, and he should. Jradi is too good for us to keep him out for good, but he will need to apologise to the players who seem to have felt offended by his remarks. He has wisely postponed any statement of his until after the tournament, as to avoid dragging out this story more and further distracting the players from on-field matters. But his father issued a statement today saying that he never intended to offend any of his teammates which he loves and respects and that the problems are between him and the coach only and concern the head coach’s defensive tactics, which Jradi believes are the reason for Lebanon’s run of 7 games without a goal.

Over the past week, numerous fans and Lebanese pundits have expressed similar concerns, accusing Radulovic of setting up overly defensive and not trusting in the capabilities of his team, and therefore blaming for the disappointing results so far. I for one will not disagree with that point, although I do feel that the players are also partly responsible, as is the injustice suffered particularly in the Qatar game. This has been a difficult week for Radulovic, maybe the hardest of his tenure as the Cedars’ head coach, as the pressure and criticism is mounting. He was also fined by the Asian Football Confederation for accusing the referee of the Qatar game of being biased. And he was not the only one that the AFC went after. Indeed, they also issued a statement demanding TeleLiban, the national television channel in Lebanon, that they stop showing Lebanon’s Asian Cup games illegally, given they do not have the rights to broadcast the games. We are yet to know whether TL will follow that request, but the Lebanese Football Association has asked TL to stop pirating the games.

Meanwhile, the Lebanon National Team are now staying in Sharjah, and training in the Sharjah football stadium right next to where they will be playing the game against North Korea. Monday saw a handful of fans (me included) attend the training session and reaffirm the support for the National Team, as the team worked mainly on attacking. The team trained again yesterday evening and will be training for a last time tonight, with Ali Hamam and Haitham Faour taking part in training so far, with them being doubts for the game after having picked up minor injuries. It remains to be seen how Radulovic’s side will line up but he is expected to go more attacking given he is facing the side that has conceded the most goals in the tournament so far (10) and is yet to score. Indeed, after losing 4-0 to Saudi Arabia, North Korea lost 6-0 to Qatar in what was a really poor performance, compounded by a red card for captain Jong Il-Gwan, meaning he will be suspended for the game.

Otherwise, in the race to be in the four best third-placed sides, who are given a slot in the next round, Group A saw Bahrain snatch a late winner against India to replace them as third and guarantee themselves a spot in the next round given their total of four points. And Group B saw Palestine earn third place ahead of underachievers Syria with a second point against Jordan. The latter was a good result for Lebanon because it means that if Lebanon beat North Korea, they will be better placed than Palestine. All we need now is a draw between either Kyrgyzstan and Philippines or Yemen and Vietnam tonight and the door will be open for us to qualify for the next round with a win tomorrow night.

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