Just over a month ago, Lebanon’s Olympic Team participated in Asian Cup Qualifiers with no preparation and as result finished 3rd in their group. Then, a few weeks later, it was the turn of the under-19s, who participated in the ISF World Championship (a non-FIFA tournament) in Serbia and achieved an impressive 8th place out of the 24 participating teams. This is a stark contrast between two generations who are only a few years apart and yet, there is a logical explanation for this contrast: the FA.
There is a general consensus among Lebanese that “we are not good at football” and Lebanon’s football team has a bad reputation in the Middle East but this generally comes from people who don’t really follow the game in Lebanon and who only loosely observe results. Indeed, Lebanon has not achieved great results in football but that is not for the lack of talent or ability in the country. Unfortunately however, it is very difficult to convince people that the Lebanese are actually extremely talented and that these poor results are in fact the result of a lack of investment and the absence of an adequate management of the game. But the Lebanon youth teams might be providing clear evidence that this is in fact the truth.
Entering the qualifiers having played zero friendly games and only participated in three training sessions with a brand new coach and a totally new set of players was a recipe for disaster for the under-23s. And yet, despite the absence of preparation and the exclusion of the best talent at our disposal, the young Cedars were the better side for the opening 60 minutes against a UAE side who had been preparing for two months straight and who had ten friendly games under their belt. They showed a decent defensive organisation and caused a real threat from their direct approach and from set-pieces. Tripoli’s Fouad Eid gave Lebanon the lead thanks to a goal caused by his sheer pace as he pressed the Emirati goalkeeper who was forced to clear straight into Eid, with the deflection going straight in. Sharafeddine, Kdouh and Mehanna all missed great chances from set-pieces as Lebanon dominated the first-half which ended with UAE taking a 2-1 lead against the run of play. Lebanon continued in the same way in the second half, with Hussein Monzer of Ahed bossing the midfield with his fantastic technical ability and his brilliant vision, but UAE capitalised on defensive mistake and a refereeing blunder to go 4-1 up, at which point the Lebanese gave up. The game ended 6-1 after Lebanon were denied a blatant penalty. The score was very harsh but reflected the gap in preparation, not in quality.
Lebanon then lost 2-0 to an unimpressive Saudi Arabia side and could have grabbed a point had they shown a bit more ambition. Our boys then ended the campaign with a 6-0 win against a poor Maldives team. The whole campaign was a frustrating watch as the Lebanese players were clearly good enough to get positive results against their Emirati and Saudi counterparts but the lack of organisation and team cohesion, as expected from a team that hasn’t prepared, made it difficult to compete.
There were still some bright spots, with a few players shining during the three games. Hussein Monzer, who has enjoyed a fine season for Lebanese champions Ahed, showcased his tremendous ability in the middle of the park. Another player who impressed was Ansar’s striker Moussa Tawil, who played in the unfamiliar holding midfield role and excelled, with his composure on the ball and his power standing out. 19 year-old Goalkeeper Hadi Mortada made some very good saves and Racing centre-back Marc Mehanna also put in some good performances but we did not get to see as much of Ali El Hajj and Khalil Bader as we might have hoped. It remains to be seen just how much we benefit from this experience. The FA might have made minimal effort to put us in a place to succeed but the outrage caused by the 6-1 defeat to the UAE among Lebanese fans and media was a positive show of discontent with the people running the game, and there were some players who came back from Riyadh with their reputations massively increased. Another positive for the future is that there are people in the FA who will push for the appointment of a head coach for the Olympic Squad after going the last few years having the same coaching staff for both the First Team and the under-23s.
It was a very different story for the Lebanon under-19s who underwent extensive preparation ahead of the ISF World Championships. They went through a lot of training and played several friendly games against local teams, all while being led by head coach Roy Abi Elias. And the difference was clear to see, with the Lebanese starting the tournament with an impressive 1-1 draw with Brazil. That was followed by a 2-0 win against Chinese Taipei and a 2-0 loss to Belgium. Lebanon then beat hosts Serbia 2-1 before drawing against Bulgaria 1-1. Those results were enough to get Lebanon into second in the group ahead of Belgium, which was good enough to proceed to the quarter-finals where they faced a really strong Slovenia side who came out 2-0 winners.
It was still a great performance from the young Cedars who ended up ranked ahead of teams such as France, Croatia and Germany, with Brazil, who drew against Lebanon on the first matchday, finishing the tournament as champions. There were also some bright young talent on show, with Tripoli’s AbdelRazak Dakramanji and Hoops’s Ali Fouani impressing particularly. But above all of this the main positive is the position this puts us in ahead of the Asian Cup Qualifiers in November. This tournament would have posed as great preparation for the upcoming qualification campaign and Roy Abi Elias will be greatly satisfied with the levels shown already by his team as he gets set to look at diaspora players to add to the current group in the summer. This is a clear example of how a good preparation gets the best out of Lebanese talent and allows for the building of a great generation for the future.
These two separate experiences are clear evidence of the amount of talent at our disposal in Lebanese football but also of how much the poor management by the FA affects our results. It is very important that the FA learns from these experiences because in a few years time, these players will be playing for the first team and as Qatar’s success at the Asian Cup has shown, the benefits of building and developing a team from the youth teams are priceless. In Lebanon, we just need the FA to put in the necessary effort and not see the youth teams as a waste of time but as the way to build the new “Golden Generation”.