For the past few months, local broadcasting channel LBCI have searched into their archives to replay old sports events and although few of those were football games, earlier this week they decided to put on a friendly game between Lebanon and Kuwait which occurred in the build-up to the much anticipated 2000 Asian Cup, which Lebanon hosted. This represented a nice occasion to go back in time and see how football in Lebanon has developed since the turn of the century.
The game took place on the 25th June of the year 2000, a year that wasn’t just special because it was the year I was born in, but because it was also the year that Lebanon were awarded hosting rights for the Asian Cup, the first major tournament to take place on Lebanese soil. Lebanon hosting the Asian Cup in 2000 was an important milestone for the country as it allowed them to show the world, only ten years on from the end of a devastating civil war, how it had rebuilt. And this feeling of collective joy and excitement was emanating from the crowded stands of the brand new state-of-the-art Tripoli International Stadium.
Thousands of supporters had turned up to watch the National Team as they prepared to host the best of the Asian continent and the atmosphere was joyful and vivacious as the supporters cheered on their beloved Mountakhab. The Cedars were wearing a lovely white Adidas jersey which had a red collar and red stripes on either shoulder, red shorts and white socks; it was a very stylish look for the Cedars. There was a roar from the crowd as the players took to the field, walking on a flawless natural grass pitch – the country had invested a lot to be ready for the tournament and it was clearly showing.
Lebanon had just recently returned from the West Asian Championship where they ultimately failed to make it to the knockout stages, and although it was only June, this was Lebanon’s ninth game of the year – they would go on to play four more matches – as preparations were taken very seriously ahead of the big event. In addition, the Lebanese Football Association had gone out of their way to find players abroad of Lebanese descent, such as Australian-born Michael Reda, as well as recruiting foreign players (mostly from Brazil) to bolster the squad, something made possible by the loose laws FIFA had at the time regarding player eligibility and naturalization.
One of those players was Gilberto dos Santos, who was brought from Brazil and made his debut in this game as part of a front two alongside Tadamon Sour forward Haitham Zein. Indeed, the Croatian head coach Josip Skoblar, who had coached teams such as SV Hamburger, Dinamo Zagreb and Real Valladolid before coming to Lebanon, lined up the team in a classic 4-4-2 formation. Sagesse goalkeeper Ali Fakih started in goal. In front of him, Skoblar selected a back-four which included a 19-year old Youssef Mohamad, back then of Safa, at right-back. The central defensive partnership consisted of 36 year-old Korken Yankibarian of Homenmen and Hussein Daher, with Tadamon Sour defender Faisal Antar at left-back. Jamal Taha, who was 33 years old at the time, captained the side from central midfield alongside Safa’s Ahmed Naamani. Nejmeh’s Abbas Chahrour occupied the right wing while another Tadamon Sour player in Nasrat El Jamal, who was also a teenager, started on the left.
The game kicked off at a fast tempo with both teams bringing a sense of urgency to their game. Five minutes in and it was Kuwait who created the first chance after a long ball forward was played in behind the Lebanese defence and the on-rushing goalkeeper Ali Fakih missed it only for Daher to clear the resulting shot off the line. A couple of minutes later and it was Lebanon’s turn to threaten the opposition goal, as Gilberto played a lofted ball for Nasrat El Jamal who was denied by the Kuwaiti goalkeeper. But after a hectic start with end-to-end action, Lebanon quickly took control of the game, with Jamal Taha at the centre of it dictating the tempo and showing his experience and great reading of the game but also covering the field well, strutting around gracefully with a certain presence about him. Chahrour and Zein were constantly switching positions, causing great confusion in the Kuwaiti backline. However, interestingly enough it was on the counter-attack that Lebanon looked particularly dangerous. On one particular occasion, Naamani broke through the middle and found Jamal who cut inside and clipped the ball into the box. Haitham Zein won the aerial dual and headed it down for Naamani who tried to hit it first time but couldn’t keep the shot down. Similarly, Kuwait also created some chances on the counter and Daher once again had to intervene to head away a decent-looking cross. At the other end, Gilberto was making quite an impression particularly by way of his physicality and aerial prowess and was proving a real nuisance for the defenders in blue but his finishing left much to be desired. On the other hand, Kuwait’s danger man Al Moutayri hit a good volley wide of the target from the edge of the box after Jamal had made a mess of his clearance. And just as Kuwait began growing into the game, Lebanon had their best chance yet. Lebanon’s aggression in the press was a clear strategy by Skoblar and this time it was Jamal Taha who won the ball high up the pitch and then played it to Nasrat El Jamal, whose dynamism had made him arguably Lebanon’s best attacking player of the first half. The Tadamon Sour winger wrong-footed the Kuwaiti defender with his touch and entered the box but as he came face to face with the goal he lost his footing and bungled the shot. That miss would be penalised mere minutes later as a mistake from Youssef Mohamad, who got the ball caught between his feet, allowed Kuwait’s striker Bashar Salem to run through on goal and side-foot it to the left of the advancing Ali Fakih. It was a harsh lesson for the Cedars but they reacted well, with Haitham Zein testing the goalkeeper with a long-range effort. Then, as we entered added time at the end of the first half, Jamal Taha latched onto a through ball and took an early shot which was saved by the Kuwaiti goalkeeper but from outside his penalty area. Al Majidi was sent off as a result and the free-kick was taken by Faisal Antar who drilled it through the wall, producing a good save by the substitute keeper who then, quite remarkably, denied Gilberto from the rebound.
At half-time, Josip Skoblar replaced the underwhelming Abbas Chahrour with Safa’s Rabih Osman who took Jamal’s place on the left, with the latter going out to the right. The second half began as the first had ended, with Lebanon playing on the front foot. Yankiparian continued to take the initiative in stepping out with the ball. Barely ten minutes into the second half, Skoblar made another change, this time bringing on Roda Antar, also 19 at the time, for Nasrat El Jamal, who seemed to have tired from his first half efforts. And it was just a minute after the change that Lebanon equalised. It all started with Gilberto winning yet another aerial battle, with the header coming down to Osman who played back it into the path of Gilberto. The Brazilian-born took the ball into his stride and skipped past two defenders before playing the ball through to Zein who had peeled off to the left side and made a run in behind the defence. Zein controlled the ball and side-footed it past the goalkeeper with great composure. The goal saw the whole team celebrate together in a beautiful display of joy and togetherness. The goal was a deserved reward for Zein, whose mobility and perseverance had seen him cause all sorts of problems for the Kuwaiti backline. In fact, this goal was a perfect illustration of Skoblar’s game plan in an attacking sense, where Gilberto was used as a target man due to his physicality and Zein was playing off of him and roaming around looking for space. The goal gave the Cedars an important confidence boost and they began pressing further forward, hunting the ball down in packs on several occasions. Roda Antar, also of Tadamon Sour at the time, was impressing and on the hour mark he made a driving run from midfield, dribbling past several players before scuffing his shot. He also missed another chance after a Youssef Mohamad cross deflected off a teammate into this path but he snatched at it. Antar’s lack of composure seemed like it may cost Lebanon but it was then that Lebanon took the lead. The move began with Roda Antar executing a graceful Cruyff Turn. He then passed to Zein who layed it off for Naamani to unleash a powerful shot. The shot was deflected into the path of Roda Antar who found himself through on goal, took the ball down and smashed it in with the laces. The momentum was now with the home side and ten-men Kuwait were struggling to get a grip of the game. In particular, Lebanon were combining well in attacking areas, with all the attacking players moving around freely and being very fluid in their positioning. This made it difficult for the Kuwaiti defenders to maintain their shape and keep track of Lebanon’s attackers. In the build-up to the goal, Lebanon had been forced into a third substitution with the injury to Osman, who was replaced by Australian-born midfielder Michael Reda. At the other end, Kuwait created a rare opportunity, with an in-swinging cross almost catching out goalkeeper Ali Fakih. Skoblar was clearly experimenting with personnel at this stage and brought on Hekmeh’s Fouad Hijazi in place of Hussein Daher and Zaher Andary of Akhaa Ahly Aley for goal scorer Haitham Zein. Roda Antar continued to show his fantastic skill and made a fool of one of the Kuwaiti defenders before winning a free-kick, from which Gilberto headed onto the crossbar. And then, in the 91st minute, Youssef Mohamad whipped a wonderful free-kick from about 20 yards out over the wall and in off the crossbar to round off the score.
The game was a great occasion and it was a very marked display of what Lebanese football could be but also of how far it has dropped since those days. The level of football may be higher but the structure around it has regressed. A striking example of this decline is the current state of the Tripoli International Stadium, which has been used in recent years as an army base and therefore has seen zero maintenance of its infrastructure. The roof is falling apart; the pitch is more soil than grass and the stands have been completely neglected. The only games that take place over there these days are lower league matches and this game showed a glimpse of what this stadium can potentially offer. Support is also an area that has seen a decline, particularly with the National Team which on the day attracted at least 10,000 fans but now struggles to get more than 3,000 or 4,000 even for big World Cup Qualifiers. And while in 2000, the Lebanese National Team donned a beautiful Adidas kit, today’s shirt manufacturer Capelli has received heavy criticism for the service they offer, such as releasing the 2019 Asian Cup kit the day of Lebanon’s first match or failing to provide proper training kit for all the players.
The reality is that in 2000, with the Asian Cup coming to Lebanon, investment in football and especially football infrastructure was significant. However, instead of using the Asian Cup as a building block to better things, the infrastructure that was built for the tournament was neglected and we have fallen way off since then. Today there is investment in football but it usually is focused on big-name signings for the purpose of pleasing fans and boosting popularity then actually developing the game. One can only hope that the people involved in football in Lebanon will start working more effectively, planning for the longer term and investing in the right areas but what is certain is that this particular trip down memory lane showed what is possible for Lebanon when efforts are made.