On Wednesday, the Lebanese Football Association announced their decision not to renew the Romanian Liviu Ciobotariu’s contract as National Team head coach, with Jamal Taha chosen as his successor. This decision comes as the country finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, a circumstance which surely impacted the Federation’s decision. And yet Ciobotariu’s departure will leave many wondering what might have been.
It is no secret that the Romanian, who was appointed last summer, was not the Lebanese FA’s first choice to succeed Miodrag Radulovic. He was surely not even their second choice and was a largely unknown figure when he showed up to his first press conference as the Cedar’s head coach back in July of last year. While he had a long and relatively successful playing career as a Romanian National Team defender, featuring in the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships, his managerial career was a series of short spells coaching various Romanian sides, along with a couple of years in Saudi Arabia. All in all, nobody really knew what to expect.
His first venture as the head coach of the Lebanese National Team was the West Asian Championships in Iraq which took place last summer and was largely used as a preparatory competition ahead of the 2022 World Cup Qualfications. Ciobotariu had inherited an ageing squad which had just participated in its first Asian Cup in 19 years where they failed to make it past the group stages and where his predecessor came under heavy criticism for his overly defensive style of play. The Romanian went to Iraq with a squad consisting solely of domestic-based players that he had seen very little of.
However, he took everyone by surprise. Although his first game ended in a narrow defeat to hosts Iraq, the performance constituted a huge shift from what we had gotten so used to seeing from the Cedars in recent years. Lebanon played the game on the front foot, showing initiative and enthusiasm and more importantly an emphasis on keeping possession. The players seemed liberated and we were able to see the likes of Nader Matar, Hassan Maatouk and Hassan Chaito Moni unleash their creativity and technical skill, having been stifled by the conservative approach of previous managers. And while few Lebanese supporters were in attendance in Karbala, many more tuned in to watch the game on the national broadcasting channel and they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. It had been years since any us had seen a Lebanese National Team play with such endeavour and after the end of the game, social media was flooded with fans praising the entertaining style of play they had just witnessed.
Local support for the National Team had weakened over the years and one of the main reasons for that had been the quality of the football on show. After all, football is an entertainment and what fans want more than anything is to enjoy watching their team. On Liviu’s debut, Lebanese supporters enjoyed watching their team play for the first time in a while. Excitement was high and it was enhanced by the sight of three of the most exciting young talents in Lebanese football making their senior international debuts, with Yehya Al Hindi and Mohamad Kdouh starting in holding midfield and upfront respectively, and Hussein Monzer coming on as a second half substitute.
This all continued in the second game against rivals Syria, where two late goals saw the Cedars come back from a goal down to win the game 2-1. Once again, Lebanon had dominated the game with their attacking football and the victory over their next-door neighbours had given Lebanese fans great joy and a rare reason to celebrate. In addition, the then 22 year-old Hussein Monzer started for the first time, as did the Ahed right-back Hussein Zein, whose consistent absence from the National Team had become a symbol of Radulovic’s stubbornness and unwillingness to give youth a chance, and he excelled in this game and played a huge part in the winning goal.
And while the rest of the competition didn’t go to plan, it was clear that Liviu Ciobotariu was taking a completely different approach with the National Team to the one we had become accustomed to with previous coaches. The fans had finally been granted their wish for a more offensive style of play and we were finally seeing our many talented attackers play to their full potential.
What followed was a World Cup qualifying campaign of ups and downs. Two solid victories against Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka displayed the attacking talent that Lebanon have in their ranks. Then there were two disappointing results against North Korea – a defeat in Pyongyang and a goalless draw in Beirut – which posed as reminders of Lebanon’s inconsistency and the weaknesses when it came to the mentality of the players. However, the game that was most revealing of the job Liviu Ciobotariu was doing as the Cedars’ head coach was the home game against South Korea in November, when Lebanon earned a 0-0 draw thanks to a memorable performance.
What was most surprising about that game was not so much the result as the performance. Lebanon were entering this key qualifier in difficult circumstances, with the political situation in the country having led to a suspension of the domestic league which meant the local-based players (apart from those at Ahed) hadn’t seen competitive action in over a month when the Taeguk Warriors came to town. Furthermore, the rising tensions in the country meant the Cedars were taking on one of Asia’s finest without the support of their fans.
Nonetheless, a tactical masterclass by Liviu Ciobotariu saw the Cedars stifle South Korea’s world class attacking threat, none more so than the Tottenham winger Heung-min Son, all while providing an attacking threat of their own. Indeed, in recent years Lebanese fans were used to seeing their team set up very defensively in these types of games with the main objective being to limit the damage and avoid thrashings. But this game was different as it saw Liviu field an attacking lineup with Rabih Ataya, Mohamad Haidar, Hassan Maatouk and Bassel Jradi all starting. Lebanon began the game on the front foot and played with a courage and confidence which took the South Koreans by surprise. They created several opportunities and although they were unable to find the net, the signs were very encouraging. Meanwhile, the defensive organisation was exemplary and greatly limited the impact of South Korea’s attacking talents, with Lebanon earning a much-deserved clean sheet. The result was greatly celebrated by players and fans alike but there was also a sense of missed opportunity for the Cedars who felt that they would have won had supporters been allowed to attend.
Beyond these games, it seemed Liviu Ciobotariu’s Lebanon team was taking shape and buying into what he wanted. When I spoke to Soony Saad a month ago, he was very positive about the impact the Romanian had had on the team: “I like what I saw at the West Asian Championships. I thought that with the little time that he had he brought in something different and I think a lot of people noticed it….We are starting to play football again”.
Unfortunately, we will never know how things would have turned out for the Lebanese National Team with Liviu Ciobotariu in charge. His successor Jamal Taha, who was the assistant coach during the Romanian’s reign, is a household name in Lebanese football but his appointment has not caused too much excitement among supporters. His coaching career includes a long spell in charge of Ansar where he won the domestic double back in 2007, as well as the Super Cup and the FA Cup a second time. He was also in charge of Shabab Sahel for a couple of years and Tadamon Sour for the 2017-2018 season where he took them to within reach of the FA Cup final. But although he has achieved relative success on the domestic stage, it is the lack of success on an international stage which casts doubts on his credentials for the top job, as does the fact that his last big success was 13 years ago. He is known for favouring an attacking style of play and for his faith in young players but it remains to be seen what approach he takes with the Cedars and how much he will deviate from what Liviu was building. The fact he was part of Ciobotariu’s coaching staff may give supporters hope that the National Team will continue down the path that Liviu had set them on, but the reality is there is a lot of uncertainty and not a lot of optimism going into the last three qualifiers. What is certain is that having been given a taste of what an attacking Lebanon team looks like, neither the players nor the supporters are ready to give that up just yet.