Who should coach the National Team?

Earlier this week, it was confirmed to us that Miodrag Radulovic, Lebanon head coach since 2015, would not continue with the Cedars. This comes after four years which saw him qualify the team for the Asian Cup for the first time in their history, during which they clinched their first ever tournament win in the 4-1 victory over North Korea, as well as go on a 16-match unbeaten run between March 2016 and October 2018. We might very well find out who replaces him after the LFA Executive Committee meeting on Monday. Here I take a look at some of the possible candidates for the job:

 

The safe bet: Theo Bucker Image result for theo bucker

Whenever a job opens up in Lebanon, whether with the National Team or with a club, the name of Theo Bucker comes up. Theo Bucker is a Lebanese football legend, and rightly so. After a playing career which included spells with Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, the German has spent his entire managerial career in the Middle East between Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and the UAE, most notably taking charge of Egyptian giants Ahly and Zamalek. He coached the Lebanon National Team through their first ever major tournament at the 2000 Asian Cup which took place in Lebanon, and then he returned in 2011 for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Lebanese football fans will always remember his second time in charge of the Mountakhab, as he gave the Lebanese the right to dream and put Lebanon on the map of the football world. After starting the qualifiers with big wins against the UAE and Kuwait, there was the historic 2-1 victory against South Korea in front of 60,000 Lebanese fans at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium. That win also took Lebanon to the final stage of World Cup Qualifying for the first time in their history. Despite being surrounded by the best in the continent, Lebanon were unfazed and managed to pick up 4 points from the first four games, including another huge upset in the form of a 1-0 home win against Iran. But in the following game, a 1-0 defeat to Qatar all but ended Lebanon’s dreams, and we would go on to learn that two of the players that had played that game had been payed to make the team lose. Theo Bucker felt betrayed and would go on to resign at the end of the campaign, although not without one last big performance which saw South Korea need a 96th minute equaliser to draw 1-1 in Beirut. In addition to his experience with the National Team, he took charge of various clubs across the country. He led Hikmeh to second place in the Lebanese Premier League in 2002, coached Ahed and also took charge of Nejmeh twice as well as Tripoli SC, and is currently in charge of third-tier Ahly Sarba. There aren’t many who know Lebanese football better than him, and the German’s knowledge of the game in this country and his experience playing in Germany and coaching around the Middle East make him a great candidate. And he has already proved his ability to get the best out of the Lebanese players and have them compete with the best in Asia, making him an easy candidate to take the team through the next round of Qualifiers, and a safe bet for success. The only problem is that at 70 years old, he clearly doesn’t represent a long-term solution, and we shouldn’t keep looking back to the same man every time we want to do well. In fact, it could be that having him return to the National Team in another role alongside a new head coach would be a better long-term solution.

 

The man in-form: Abdallah Abu Zema Image result for abdallah abou zema football

Abdallah Abu Zema is a name that would not have been known to many Lebanese fans at the beginning of the season when he was appointed by Ansar, but it is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment. His playing career, during which he was a key player for both Al Wehdat and the Jordanian National Team, was cut short by injury but he has made up for it by emerging as a very intelligent and very exciting young coach. After being the assistant coach for the Jordan national team for three years, he was the number two at Jordanian clubs Shabab Al Ordon and Al Wehdat, at Kuwait SC and at Ittihad Kalba in the UAE. During this time, he was able to learn from Egyptian icon Mahmoud El Gohary and the hugely experienced Nelo Vingada. Then, in 2013, he was handed his first job as head coach by Al Wehdat, the club he shone for as a player. He won the league and cup double in his first season and then retained the league title the following year, further solidifying his status as a legend for Al Wehdat. He was then appointed as caretaker manager by the Jordan National Team  and although he only won two of the ten games he took charge of before being replaced by Harry Redknapp, the Jordanian National Team under his stewardship was a difficult team to beat and impressed with their high levels of fitness. He then spent eight months as the head coach of Kuwait SC, before being appointed by Ansar this summer. And despite being appointed only a couple of weeks before the start of the league season, Ansar impressed everyone with their excellent performance in the first game against Nejmeh, even if they ended up losing 4-2. They played exhilarating attacking football and created an abundance of chances, and that has remained the way Ansar have performed throughout the season. In fact, in many people’s eyes, Ansar have been the best performers in the league this season because of their great attacking style of play, even if the results have not always been kind to them, and the fact they are far behind in the title race. We have become accustomed to seeing this style of play from Abu Zema’s Ansar and the optimism at the club is at its highest point in years. In addition to the style of play, Abdallah Abu Zema is a coach who has been described as “intelligent, humble, charismatic” and who is strict and instills discipline in his squad, all while building good relationships with his players. And although this is only his first year in Lebanon, he has been following Lebanese football from long before his arrival and is someone who knows Lebanese football and understands Lebanese people. Abdallah Abu Zema’s CV speaks for itself and he is as good a trainer as he is at managing the psychological aspect. He is also someone who is believed to have the ability to improve the talented young players emerging in Lebanon today and take the National Team to the next level. All of this makes him a great candidate to be Lebanon’s new head coach, and he could even do that job in parallel to his current job at Ansar, especially considering the number of National Team players currently playing for Ansar.

The young exciter: Tarek Jarraya  Image result for tarek jarraya'

Tarek Jarraya’s recent appointment by Safa had everyone involved with Lebanese football on the edge of their seat, and there is good reason for that. After coaching in the lower leagues of French football and then spending one year at Tunisian first-tier side Hammam-Lif, he arrived in Lebanon in the summer of 2016 as an unknown quantity. He was appointed by Salam Zgharta following what had been a disappointing season which saw them finish in 10th place, just above the relegation zone. But Jarraya made an immediate impact, winning the opening game of the season 5-2 against Ansar and avoiding defeat in his first five games in charge. This good form continued as Salam Zgharta finished in second place behind Ahed in what was a truly remarkable first season in Lebanese football. He did not remain at Salam Zgharta however due to a ban he received from the Lebanese FA for an incident which occurred during the season. He was then appointed in the summer of 2017 by a Nejmeh side recovering from having lost the league and cup to rivals Ahed to lead the team through the qualifiers for the Arab Championship. Despite being drawn in a very difficult group alongside Concorde of Mauritania, Al Faisaly of Saudi Arabia and Tunisian giants Club Africain, Jarraya inspired Nejmeh to first place with three wins, scoring 7 goals and conceding just one. The upset against Club Africain in particular endeared him to Nejmeh fans but it was  the ban that would come between them and the Tunisian tactician, to Nejmeh’s fans’ great frustration. He was later appointed by Jordanian giants Al Faisaly after a poor start had seen them pick up just 5 points from their opening three league games. Once again, Jarraya turned his club’s fortunes around, winning 7 and drawing 3 from 11 games. However, to many people’s surprise, he was relieved of his duties with the club sitting in third place. And this is when Safa moved in. Just like his previous three clubs, Safa have been struggling and need someone to revive them, something Jarraya has proved to be adept at doing. The young coach is a great motivator and someone who knows how to get his players to leave everything on the pitch. One of the strategies he uses for that is to give the team a set of goals to achieve, which gives confidence to the players when they start achieving them and increases their motivation. He fosters a familial bond between the players and acts as a father figure for the players. He is also a big disciplinarian and does not favour any player over the team. In fact, one of his big strengths is his ability to create a system that doesn’t rely on any one player, meaning that injuries or loss of form to star players do not affect the team’s performances because those are centered around elaborated tactics and game plans, and any player who does not respect those instructions is dropped, regardless of who they are. He is extremely hard-working and detail-oriented, to the point where he has measured and memorized the stats of all his players, impressive considering there are no stats for the Lebanese Premier League. His tactical meetings are also very rigorous and his tactical instructions very precise. Tarek Jarraya is without a doubt one of the top managers to work in Lebanon over the last few years. His tactical ingenuity and ability to create a team much greater than the sum of its part make him a great candidate for the National Team as they prepare for World Cup qualifiers. However, he does have a lack of experience when it comes to international football and I’m not sure how his job at Safa affects his suitability to the role, given that not many Safa players would be in contention for the National Team, meaning it could be difficult for him to manage both jobs.

The great organizer: Abdul-Wahab Abu Al Hail

Image result for ‫اخاء اهلي عاليه مدرب‬‎

Another coach to have really impressed in the Lebanese Premier League in the last few years is Akhaa Ahli Aley’s Iraqi coach, Abdul-Wahab Abu Al Hail. He was big figure in Iraqi football as a player, featuring for the National Team 67 times across 12 years. The central midfielder who had brilliant ball control and was as brilliant in his passing as in his shooting was as important to Iraq as Ronaldo was to Brazil, according to former Iraq coach Milan Zivadinovic. During his playing career, he featured for Iraqi side Al Talaba, Lebanese outfit Akhaa Ahly Aley, UAE’s Al Shaab and Iranian trio Esteghlal Ahvaz, Sepahan and Foolad. He ten started his managerial career at Al Talaba, the same club where he first emerged as a player, spending two years there. Then halfway through the 2016/2017 season, he was appointed head coach of Akhaa Ahly Aley, with the club having already gone through two managers and picking up only 11 points from their first 11 games. He would go on to secure survival on the last day, but it was the following season that people took notice of his talent as a coach, as he led the small mountain club to a remarkable fifth-place finish as well as the FA Cup semi-final in which they narrowly lost to eventual winners Ahed. And his success has not stopped there. Akhaa reached the Elite Cup final in the summer and find themselves in fourth place once again with only three games to go. The rise of Akhaa under Abu Al Hail has been impressive, going from relegation-battlers to one of the toughest teams to beat in the country, and this improvement was epitomized by their recent 4-1 win against Nejmeh. In fact, last year, only title-winners Ahed lost less games than Akhaa, who were unbeaten on their home ground, as they also had the second best defensive record in the league with only 19 goals conceded from 22 games. This has been the blueprint for Abu Al Hail’s success with Akhaa, as he has made them very well-drilled and extremely hard to break down. He is a great tactician and this can be seen in the excellent defensive organisation displayed by Akhaa Ahly Aley over the past two seasons. Indeed, he has been known to focus a lot on tactical work, and is definitely one of the best tacticians to have passed by Lebanon in the last few years. But he also gets the best out of his players by working on the psychological aspect and focusing on individual players’ morale, with Ahmad Hijazi the best example of this. Indeed, over the last two seasons Ahmad Hijazi has become one of the best Lebanese strikers, scoring 9 goals last year and getting a further 11 this year. This form has put him in contention for the National Team and he is not the only Akhaa player to have emerged as a possible National Team under the Iraqi, with captain Ahmed Atwi having also undergone a huge rise. Abdul-Wahab Abu Al Hail’s success with Akhaa makes him a great candidate for the National Team job and he also has a lot of experience from his playing career, and after two and a half great years at Akhaa, he might be tempted by a new challenge.

 A European coach

In addition to these four coaches, there is a high possibility of another European coach with no experience of Lebanese football being appointed. There is particular interest in coaches from the Balkans, although no names have been mentioned. One name that did appear in the media was Serbian former Nejmeh head coach Boris Bunjak, although I personally do not expect him to be appointed after he struggled to get the best out of key National Team players, apparently due to him being unable to get his ideas across to his players and struggling to understand the mentality and culture of Lebanese players. There were also reports saying that someone who had been coached Dinamo Zagreb as well as in the Chinese Super League had been contacted but that negotiations had fallen through. Other reports claim that the list of managers being considered includes managers who have experience coaching in the World Cup and an Arab Champions Cup winning manager. I would personally like to see us look at Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who has extensive experience coaching in Asia, including leading Iraq to a shock win in the 2007 Asian Cup, and Czech former Bahrain National Team head coach Miroslav Soukup, who took Bahrain, a country of similar football standing to Lebanon, to the Asian knockout stages during which they only narrowly lost to South Korea.

Despite the wish of many in Lebanon and despite there currently being some great Lebanese coaches in the Lebanese Premier League, the FA are not considering any Lebanese coach, probably because there currently is no Lebanese coach who has experience coaching abroad.

I personally think that the four mentioned above constitute the best candidates as they have excellent knowledge of Lebanese football in addition to experience in other leagues and have all shown their ability to build teams greater than the sum of their parts. But in the end, we just need to hope that the new man can come in continue Miodrag Radulovic’s job and take Lebanon to the next level, which is hopefully challenging for World Cup qualifying but at the very least qualifying for the next Asian Cup and then going further than the group stages in 2023.

 

Article written with the help of Maroun Mahfoud.

First image was taken from eurosport.com

Second image is from footballdatabase.eu

Third image is from orangefootballclub.com

Fourth image is from kooora.com

 

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