Lebanon, previously referred to as “a rose amongst thorns”, was always going to be of great interest to me when asked to write about. Initial research highlighting a Capital city, Beirut, previously called the “Paris of the Orient” reinforced the captivation immediately.
With the country now rebuilding itself in modernity, one could not but help visualize though the ancient history of this important Middle East country. There is of course the more recent history of political assassinations, insurgency, revolution, terrorism and both international and civil wars too. But for me though the topic to write on, had to be football.
Like the country, the international football team too has started a rebuilding job. Having never previously qualified for a World Cup, there was, if anything, only a small degree of optimism in the country when the Lebanese national team took to the field in May 2011 to play Bangladesh in the second round of the Asia qualifiers for Brazil 2014. A 4-0 win in Beirut was enough for the Cedars (named after a recent political revolution) to counter a 2-0 defeat in Dhaka.
Lebanon advanced then to the third round of qualifiers where they were grouped with South Korea, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. No football journey though is complete without a bit of turmoil and just before the games started, Lebanon got theirs. Coach Emile Rustom resigned, citing internal administrative problems as the reason for his departure.
Starting with a 3-0 defeat in Goyang Stadium to South Korea was not a good start, although it was for hat trick hero on the day, Park Chu-Young. The new but returning and much loved Cedar manager Theo Bucker though was not dismayed, stating that he was more concerned about getting results against United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in order to progress to the next round.
In the following matches Lebanon came back from a goal down to beat the United Arab Emirates 3–1, then drew 2 – 2 at home with Kuwait; the visitors stealing a point only after Lebanon were unfortunate to score an own goal in the last minutes of the game. Bucker’s plan seemed to be working.
It should be noted that this was a landmark moment for Lebanese football. With 32,000 or so spectators present at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium to see the game against Kuwait, this had been the first match attended at home by fans since 2005; the Lebanese FA had previously barred them from attending games due to their past bad behaviour. The fact that Japanese referee Masaaki Toma had to stop the Kuwaiti game on numerous occasions can maybe put down to the excitement of it all.
Following this, Lebanon beat Kuwait 1–0 in the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Kuwait City. On November 15th, 2011 Lebanon hosted South Korea. This time over 40,000 spectators were present to cheer the Lebanese national team, seeing them achieve a 2–1 victory for the first time in their history against South Korea. This was a big result. Although February 12 saw Lebanon suffer a 4–2 loss to the United Arab Emirates, when the points were all tallied, they had made it to the fourth qualifying round of the world cup. Never before had they reached this stage.
Upon reaching this level of qualification they were joined in the group by old foes South Korea, Iran, Qatar and Uzbekistan. FIFA summarized the Cedars as outsiders for further advancement in the tournament but did note them as a team that could no longer be regarded as minnows, that their defensively disciplined approach to the game would come under scrutiny.
This summation looked to be fairly accurate as the next round kicked off. The Cedars succeeded in securing only 1 point from three games courtesy of a 1 – 1 draw at home to Uzbekistan. A home defeat to Qatar (0 – 1) and a 3-0 defeat in Goyang to South Korea were the results of their other two opening series of games.
The economic, political and military links between Lebanon and Iran have been well documented in all sorts of media. So when the teams took to the park last Tuesday (11th September 2012) in Beirut, the international interest in the game, especially across Asia, was self-evident.
Facts pointed that if the Cedar’s journey was to continue further, a victory was required; this looked highly unlikely though, given the variations in reputations, status or resources between the two teams.
The fairy tale for Lebanon, at least for now, is set to continue.
This is because Carlos Queiroz’s Iran fell to Roda Antar’s first-half strike and a 1-0 defeat.
Disappointed by the result, Iransportspress.com made its feelings clear in an article titled “Team Melli suffers its first-ever defeat against Lebanon.” Imagine Isle of Man beating England, maybe a wee bit of an exaggeration, but the shock was the same.
The Iranians labeled the game as “one of the most forgettable results in their football history” and “one of their weakest and most disappointing performances ever”.
The Cedars, courtesy of this result, currently sit joint 2nd in the group with Iran and Qatar on 4 points; South Korea leading the way on 7 points. The fact that Lebanon have played a game more than all these teams needs to be factored into the equation too. It is difficult to imagine that they will progress, with matches still to play away in Qatar, Iran and Uzbekistan, plus a home match to South Korea. To qualify directly to Brazil, they’ll need to finish among the top two of the group.
However, to reach the Asia Continental play-off place by finishing 3rd in their group does not seem beyond them. Achieving this and subsequent victory, they’ll face the “inter continental” play off and a double header home and away with the 5th placed team from South America qualification process.
The country is now fully behind them. The local Aliwaa newspaper has been paying tribute this week to goal scorer Antar and goalkeeper Abbas Hassan, both instrumental in the victory over Iran. “The duo led our team to a history-making win against Iran” - was quoted. The Assafir newspaper, meanwhile, pointed out that “the national team had restored the lost credibility with the win against the Iranians”.
The Al Akhbar newspaper, for its part, revealed optimism in the Cedars’ chances of reaching the next FIFA World Cup: “Coach Theo Bucker has silenced the critics with this win. The victory has revived our hopes and established our place among Asia’s big boys. The team showed they are capable of reaching Brazil 2014.”
Upcoming games for the Cedars: 14th November 2012 away to Qatar, 26th March 2013 away to Uzbekistan, home to South Korea on the 4th of June 2013 and then finally away to Iran on the 11th of June 2013.
That’s it for my diary (and hopefully yours), in anticipation of the Cedars marching on: first two weeks in September 2013 for the continental play off and middle of November same year for the intercontinental play off. The Brazil 2014 dream lives on for now and I for one believe in Cedars.
Written by James Redfern
Follow him on Twitter @jaycraig1
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Published with permission from O-Posts - O-Posts.