John Duerden on how Lebanon are raising hopes against the odds with a good showing in World Cup qualifying
Lebanon's German manager, Theo Bücker, was tired of waiting and told the bus driver to leave the Seoul hotel, where the team were preparing for a 2014 World Cup qualifier against South Korea, without one of his players. "If I say five o'clock, I don't mean two minutes after or two minutes before," Bücker said. "If a shot hits the crossbar is it a goal even if it had gone in had the shot been two centimetres lower?"
The lax timekeeping of the players is a favourite topic of the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder, but perhaps he was right to be strict. As soon as the match on September 2 finished in a 6-0 defeat, Lebanon rushed to the airport to get home to face UAE just four days later. The Koreans were on the same Dubai-bound flight for their match in Kuwait. It was the closest the defence came to hat-trick hero and new Arsenal striker Park Chu-young all night.
Bücker admitted that he didn't expect anything from the third qualifying round Group B opener and was focusing on the other games. Finishing above UAE and Kuwait will be enough to progress to the final round of qualification when ten teams fight it out for four places at the 2014 finals, plus one play-off. Lebanon have not yet come close to qualifying for the World Cup and only took part in the Asian Cup finals once – they were hosts in 2000 but still finished bottom of their group. A similar fate was expected for this team, ranked 160 in the world, in this round of qualification against one of Asia's powerhouses and two middle-ranking West Asian nations.
Any optimism ahead of the second match was further diluted by the 20-hour trip back to Beirut and the 6-2 friendly defeat suffered at UAE hands in a July friendly. Since then the likes of David Trezeguet and Asamoah Gyan have signed for clubs in UAE financed by wealthy sheikhs. Diego Maradona is also working there as a coach.
Yet the visitors were cut down to size by their Lebanese opponents who ran out 3-1 winners. Qualification for the final stage now hinges on back-to-back games against Kuwait in October and November. Reaching the final round would undoubtedly be one of the greatest moments for the country's national team.
There are no wealthy sheikhs in Lebanese football and no Sky equivalent. Al Jazeera used to pay for the right to televise games but no more, leaving the league with just a $200,000 (£128,000) deal with a local broadcaster. Money is scarce meaning that the handful of Brazilians and African imports are not in the same class as those in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Crowd violence is not uncommon. The supporters of leading club Al-Ansar are mainly Sunni Muslims, while reigning champions Al Ahed are Shia. There are also teams connected to Armenian Catholic and Druze communities. "Football is a symbol of the Lebanese situation – everyone is fighting over nothing," said sports and youth minister Faisal Karami. That situation includes a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, conflicts with Israel and tension with Syria.
Bücker, married to a Lebanese woman, is with the national team for a second spell on a strictly temporary basis, and is the full-time coach of Al Ahed, the club regarded as having the best facilities. He spends his time in one of the Christian areas of Beirut, ten minutes, he says, but a world away from the poor Muslim districts from where the majority of the national team come.
The Muslim members of the squad had to prepare for the South Korea game during Ramadan. It ended three days before kick-off but the combination of fasting between sunrise and sunset, jetlag and hot and humid conditions made it harder to compete with the fit Koreans. At least the 2002 World Cup co-hosts offered top-class places to play and train.
"Facilities in Lebanon are mostly poor," said Bücker. "There is just not enough money or not enough places to play. The facilities the players see and use when they travel overseas to a place like South Korea is valuable. It shows what they can aspire to." After the UAE win, they may be aspiring to the World Cup. Brazil may be too far but at least the football team has given fans something to cheer about.
From WSC 297 November 2011