Lebanon’s first major tournament campaign in 19 years ended on Thursday night despite a first ever Asian Cup win, with the Cedars being knocked out at the group stages, just like in their maiden Asian Cup campaign back home in 2000. This was a historical tournament for Lebanon because it was the first time that they qualified for a tournament, having hosted the Asian Cup in 2000, and so the fans were incredibly excited to see their heroes take on the best in the continent and the players were very determined to enjoy the experience and do well. However, things unfortunately did not go to planned as Lebanon were unsuccessful in their attempt to qualify for their first ever knockout stages. Here, I will attempt to point out exactly why Lebanon failed to reach their targets.
Luck is usually just a bad excuse and so people try to avoid it when analyzing their performance but in the case of Lebanon’s Asian Cup, luck had a massive influence. Lebanon suffered from bad luck throughout the tournament, from before it began up until the final whistle. The first bit of bad luck Lebanon received was at the draw back in May, when Lebanon not only were drawn in what was probably the toughest group, containing two possible candidates for the title in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also were given the toughest fixture list of all the 24 teams in the tournament. This is because Lebanon were the only team in the whole of the competition to be scheduled to play twice in four days, with the Qatar game scheduled for the 9th and the Saudi Arabia game on the 12th. This meant a very demanding calendar for a group of players the majority of which play in a semi-professional league, the Lebanese Premier League, and therefore have lower fitness levels and are not used to playing multiple games in a week. The second bit of bad luck was the refusal of FIFA to allow striker Jeronimo Amione, Mexican-born and former Mexican youth international, to play for Lebanon simply because he had played for Mexico’s Olympic team. Amione was supposed to help solve our problem in the striker position and this decision, along with the injury to our second striker Omar Bugiel meant we were left with only one recognized striker: Hilal El Helwe. But then came the actual tournament and our bad luck got much worse. In the first game against Qatar, we set up very defensively to try and nullify Qatar’s attacking threat and attempt to hit them with set-pieces or counter-attacks. The game plan was working, as Qatar couldn’t create any chances. And then Ali Hamam found himself on the end of a corner to give us the lead just before half-time, only for the goal to be wrongly disallowed. The referee penalized Felix Melki for an alleged foul at the near post but Melki was just standing his ground against the challenge of the Qatari defender who was behind him and who threw himself in a desperate attempt to disturb Melki’s run to the ball. In fact, not one of the Qatari players claimed a foul or complained to the referee when the goal was initially given and were as confused as the Lebanese players when they learned of the referee’s final decision. Former English Premier League referee Mark Halsey was shown the incident and replied that it was a “perfectly good goal” and that “it was the Qatar player who initiated the contact”. This was a massive moment in the game. A goal would have given Lebanon confidence and something to hold onto and the Qataris would have started to get frustrated and feel the pressure. Then Qatar were wrongly given a free-kick which was shot straight into the wall, only for the referee to signal another free-kick due to there being an alleged handball from one of the Lebanese players manning the wall. This was Hassan Maatouk, but replays clearly show that his arm was just protecting his face and that it was not making him a bigger obstacle for the shot, hence why it should not have been given as a handball let alone be worth a yellow card for Maatouk. It was from this free-kick that Qatar scored, with it being their first shot on target. It is only after that goal, when Lebanon chased an equalizer, that Qatar began looking dangerous. This would not have happened had Lebanon not been trailing and I firmly believe that if the referee had gotten those two decisions right we would have won the game as Qatar were unable to create anything when we were in our defensive shape. Moving on to the second game, and Saudi Arabia’s first goal came as the result of a truly freakish ricochet from Oumari’s clearance off the leg of Alex Melki which fell perfectly for Al Muwallad to volley it past Khalil, therefore giving Saudi an early lead and forcing the Cedars to alter their game plan. Then finally in the third game, North Korea were wrongly given a free-kick early on for a challenge by Nader Matar which, having seen it again on the replay, was a fair and legal challenge where Matar got the ball. But the referee, after initially letting the play go, decided to bring it back, and North Korea scored from that free-kick. That is the goal that would send us out of the Asian Cup. Well, not really actually, as we went out beauce we had two more yellow cards than Vietnam, so we can say that it was Maatouk’s wrongly given yellow card in the first game, or Melki’s wrongly given yellow card in the first game, that sent us out. We can really see how much bad luck Lebanon suffered from and why luck had such a big role in Lebanon’s failure to make it to the second round.
Lebanon clinched qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup back in November 2017, which means that Miodrag Radulovic and his coaching staff had 14 months to prepare the team for the tournament and make sure the players were ready to succeed. However, despite all the talent in our squad, we were not even able to reach the Second Round. And there were loads of issues with the preparations of the team in that period which are a big factor in the disappointing Asian Cup campaign. First of all, only 6 friendly matches during the whole of 2018 were played in preparation for the tournament. Meanwhile, our neighbours Palestine, who cannot be said to have better resources than us, played 8 since October and 14 over the course of the year. In fact, we only started to prepare for the tournament in September 2018, which is 10 months after we qualified. This is despite the fact that there were plenty of windows during which we could, and should have been preparing for this historic event. In March 2018, the first international break since our qualification was confirmed, we only played one game, the last qualifier against Malaysia, when we should have at least organized one friendly match for that international window. Then, we had the Lebanese Premier League finish in mid-April, the FA Cup final at the end of the same month, and Ahed’s continental campaign terminated in mid-May, with the players getting at the very least a month of holidays if not two (for the non-Ahed players) before pre-season began in mid-June. There was more than enough time during the summer for the FA and the coaching staff to organize a camp and a couple of friendly matches for the National Team, even with the foreign players whose seasons also would have been done by the start of June. I am not even saying that the camp would have replaced the holidays as it could have been done in June similarly to Syria’s two-week camp in Austria during which they played three friendly matches. And then finally, we started to prepare for the Asian Cup in September with a camp in Jordan during which we played two friendly matches, and then went to Kuwait in October where we played only one game instead of two, which is once again something that would have benefitted our preparations. And in December, when we went to Bahrain for a fitness camp with a newly-appointed fitness coach, we only played one friendly match whereas most teams competing in the Asian Cup played at least two games prior to the tournament, and that includes North Korea and Palestine. A bigger number of games and training sessions for our players would have hugely benefitted our players and our coaching staff, whether it be from a tactical standpoint or the fitness aspect or simply in terms of squad building and the players getting to know each other better. Additionally, this would have allowed us to prepare multiple strategies for different levels of opponents and maybe play some European opposition to increase the team’s experience. And it would have given the fringe players more chances and seen Radulovic rotate more instead of sticking to almost the same team during the entirety of the friendlies, which is exactly what he did. The local-based players would also have benefited hugely from playing more matches from a fitness perspective as one of the main problems in the local game is the small number of competitive games that Premier League players play, with a maximum of 27 games including League, Cup and Super Cup being a very small number indeed. There were also a lot of last-minute additions to the squad and coaching staff which should have been done earlier, such as the appointment of a specialized coach to increase the fitness of the players, especially the local-based ones. Other last-minute additions were the foreign-based trio of Bassel Jradi and Alex and Felix Melki, who all joined the National Team in November. Now I realize that the Melki brothers were awaiting the finalization of papers and Jradi only decided he wanted to play for Lebanon a week before the squad for the Australia camp was announced, but the FA could have called Jradi a lot earlier to try and convince him to return and the Melki nationalization process was very slow. All of these missed steps in the preparation process had big impacts on our performance in the tournament. For instance, we struggled throughout the tournament to create chances and there are many reasons for this but most of them would have been avoided with better preparations. For example, Radulovic’s tactics lacked balance, as neither the wing-backs nor the midfielders were allowed to go forward and support the attack, which that our three attacking were often left isolated and we did not have strength in numbers on our counter-attacks. In fact, there seemed to be no attacking strategy or organization whatsoever, with Radulovic having focused almost exclusively on our defensive shape during the small time of training he had with the team. So while our defensive shape was excellent, we were unable to pose a threat on the attack. Another factor in this goalscoring issue that was clear to see was how we seemed to play direct long balls whenever we won back possession, a way of playing that clearly did not suit our players, instead of counter-attacking with quick short passes and combinations between our attacking players which would have allowed our players to better express their undoubted talent. Players like Maatouk, Haidar, Jradi and Ataya are all excellent on the ball and we would have seen more of that if we allowed a wing-back and a central midfielder to join the attack as well as having them play short passes instead of long diagonal balls. The latter would have also been better executed had we had more training time to work on our passing and our combination play, which would have allowed the players to build an understanding amongst each other and increase the cohesion, something also lacking in our Asian Cup displays as pass after pass were going to the opposition because the players were not on the same wavelength. This was clear even against North Korea, when once again there was no clear attacking strategy as it seemed Radulovic was relying on individuals such as Maatouk to create the chances through their talent. A more balanced game plan and more training would have helped us be a more potent attacking force and given the players more confidence in themselves because as a coach myself, I know that the more a team has trained, the more they feel prepared, and the more they feel prepared the more they are confident in themselves and in the game plan. A great example of this is Jordan, who played a very defensive game similar to us except that when they got the ball back, they counter-attacked with at least 4 players and through short quick passes, which made them very dangerous and saw them winning the group ahead of defending champions Australia and World Cup qualifying dark horses Syria, all of this knowing that we beat Jordan back in September on their own turf. A lot of people have been criticizing Radulovic for playing too defensive but we needed to play defensive and the problem is not here. The problem is that there was no attacking organization and no plan for when we had the ball. Now I am not pointing the finger of blame at anyone in particular and to be honest, I do not know what the exact reasons for not preparing properly are, especially as I know the FA put in a lot of effort in the last few months to give the coach what he asked for, but what I do know is that there are countries with less resources than us that prepared better than us and that these incomplete preparations are a big factor in the failure to reach the Second Round and more importantly, the failure of our players to do themselves justice and show exactly how good they are to the world.
I do not want to put all the blame on head coach Miodrag Radulovic, especially since he deserves a lot of credit for the way we qualified but also because if it weren’t for the refereeing mistakes that cost us during the Qatar game, we would have gotten a point at the very least and qualified for the Second Round. And he is responsible for our excellent defensive shape, one that the Qataris were unable to break through. But other than the fact that his game plan was unbalanced and didn’t allow the attacking players to showcase their talents properly, he also made a few mistakes during the tournament which proved costly and have made him a victim of heavy criticism and abuse in Lebanon since the end of Lebanon’s tournament. The first big error he made was against Qatar, when having gone a goal down very unfairly, he decided to remove a defender in Alex Melki and replace him with attacking midfielder Nader Matar and substitute attack-minded Samir Ayass for defensive midfielder Felix Melki. This decision was very naïve because it saw us abandon our defensive shape to try and get an equalizer when we knew that goal difference would be decisive in our quest for the Second Round if we were to finish third. Radulovic should have pushed the team forward to try and get an equalizer but with the same shape so that we avoid opening up and conceding a second goal, which is exactly what happened, especially since he knew that our players would get tired towards the end of the game and be unable to run up and down the pitch. And Qatar would have scored more and possibly ended our hopes of proceeding to the knockout stages if it weren’t for Mehdi Khalil who made a couple of great saves. Then, in the third game, Radulovic made a couple mistakes in his teams selection which proved costly. The first one was the decision not to start with Rabih Ataya, who is clearly on of our best attacking players and more importantly is a player who has proven to show up in the most important moments. But for some unknown reason, Radulovic kept him out of the game until the 50th minute, and given the great impact he had when he finally came on it was clearly a big mistake and had he started we might very well have scored more goals. Him coming on also allowed Mohamad Haidar to play in a more central role where he is clearly at his best instead of the winger role where he started. In my view, another mistake was starting Walid Ismail at left-back as his lack of pace means he never ventures forward and therefore his inclusions limits our attacking threat. Knowing that we needed to score as many as possible and that we were going to dominate the game, Radulovic should have played Hassan Chaito Shibriko at left-back as he has the pace and quality to be a real threat going forward and his selection would have also made us more of a threat going forward. Now this is not to say that I do not recognize Radulovic’s achievements with the National Team or to say that he is not a good coach or that he should not stay with us, but what is clear is that he holds a big part of the responsibility when it comes to us being knocked out in the first round and that he made some very costly mistakes.
The weak local league
“The Lebanese league is one of the weakest in the world” said Nejmeh captain and National Team regular Ali Hamam in November while on MTV Lebanon. While I feel that this statement is a bit of an exaggeration, there is a point there, and that is that the Lebanese Premier League is very weak and this is negatively affecting the National Team. First of all, the Lebanese Premier League is a semi-professional league with a lot of players who are not even on semi-professional contracts. This means that Lebanese clubs are not eligible for the Asian Champions League. The football facilities in Lebanon are terrible, as we see regularly with the Premier League matches being played on poorly maintained artificial grass pitches for the most part. There are only a handful of stadiums with pitches made of natural grass, with at least two of those having pitches in poor condition, those being the National Stadium in Beirut and the Saida International Stadium. The rest of the stadiums are made with artificial grass, which causes more injuries to players and has them training and playing with different boots and on different surfaces than the ones they see in international football. This has a big effect on their preparations and on their performances, with Radulovic saying that “football on artificial grass is an entirely different game”. The pitches are not the only cause for the big number of injuries that Lebanese players suffer from. Since the league is semi-pro, the players do not take care of themselves as professional footballers would, which means that their nutrition and sleeping habits are also causing injuries. These injuries also affect the general fitness of the players as it reduces the already small number of games that they play in. This brings me to my next point, which is the fitness of the players. The league is semi-pro and also shorter than other leagues which means that our players’ fitness levels are not at the required level. The game is less intense and slower which makes the transition to tournament football difficult for our players. We could see that very well in the Asian Cup as some of our players struggled with the fast pace of the game and their reaction time was slower than those of the Qataris or the Saudis. As long as our league is in this state, our National Team will find it difficult to achieve positive results.
A dearth of support back home
Although I have left this to the end, it is by no means the least important factor out of all of them. The truth is that Lebanon is not behind our National Team and that these players left Lebanon for the UAE with very little support in their home country. I personally spent two weeks in Beirut prior to the Asian Cup and there was no mention of the football team’s successes by the media, very little support by the politicians and almost no public knowledge of our historic participation outside of the Lebanese football bubble consisting of fans of the local league and the very small number of journalists who cover Lebanese football. And even among the Lebanese football fans, there were many fans who were not supporting the National Team as they felt the FA had been unfair towards their club. This meant that, unlike our neighbours Palestine, their was no atmosphere no excitement in the country at the participation of our football team in Asia’s biggest tournament, despite the fact that football is the number one sport in the country. When our Basketball team beat China in an important but far from decisive World Cup qualifier, the media covered it immensely and social media went crazy as the country celebrated and the politicians expressed messages of support and congratulations for this one victory. But the National football Team has received no such support or praise, and it would be silly to think that this had no effect on the players. Having met these players personally, I can tell you that they greatly appreciate support and their achievements deserve much more than they are getting. As a matter of fact, when Lebanon clinched qualification with a game to go, Radulovic asked the fans to come to the final game against Malaysia so that they could celebrate altogether. But unfortunately, only 3500 fans turned up in the National Stadium of Beirut where the maximum capacity is 50000. It is only in the last week before the start of the Asian Cup that we saw some displays of support albeit those were limited. At the open training session, the day before the squad was scheduled to leave for the UAE, a group of ultras from big clubs Ahed, Ansar and mainly Nejmeh turned up to show their support although they could not have been much more than 50 fans there. And then there were a few dozens of fans who went to the airport to say goodbye to the team, most of them being from the Nejmeh ultras group called Supernova. Meanwhile, we saw a few messages of support from celebrities and politicians being circulated on social media and MP Rola Tabsh and PM Saad Hariri attended the team’s training in Beirut to show their support but there was not much more than that. In fact, the only Lebanese journalists who went to the UAE to cover the team came with their own money as the big media networks decided to snub the event. Luckily, the diaspora in the UAE came in their numbers to show amazing support for the team but you can be sure that the players felt the lack of support back home. In football, support is everything as it pushes you beyond your normal level and these players did not have the amount needed or deserved.