x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Beirut boost is the catalyst to a World Cup dream

A win six month's ago has seen Lebanon's fortunes soar as high as the UAE's have sunk since that game in Beirut.

Ramez Dayoub, centre, and his Lebanon teammates have soared since defeating the UAE national side six months ago in Beirut.
Ramez Dayoub, centre, and his Lebanon teammates have soared since defeating the UAE national side six months ago in Beirut.

When the UAE national team stepped on to the pitch at Beirut's crumbling Camille Chamoun Stadium for a World Cup qualifying match on September 6, they were a side with Brazil 2014 aspirations. Their opponents, Lebanon, were "a blank spot on the map of world football".

Look at them now.

They meet Wednesday at Al Wahda's Al Nahyan Stadium and, as the UAE conclude their least successful World Cup campaign, Lebanon hope and expect to advance to the final round of Asia qualifying for the first time in the nation's history.

These massive changes in fortune began on that warm afternoon in Beirut.

"It was 100 per cent where this started," said Kenny Laurie, the sports editor for the English-language Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. "Lebanon had been strafed 6-0 by South Korea four days before, and if they had not won that day, it was over."

The UAE grabbed a 1-0 lead with a goal by Mahmoud Khamis. Lebanon equalised with a penalty in the 37th minute, moved ahead in the 52nd and clinched it against the exhausted Emiratis in the 82nd.

Rather than Lebanon's World Cup campaign being dead, it was the UAE's.

Lebanon were revitalised.

Six months later, Lebanon need only a tie against the UAE on Wednesday to book passage into Asia's final 10, having lifted their Fifa ranking from No 187 to 111 in eight months; the UAE, meanwhile, without a point in this round, hit their historic low Fifa ranking, No 138, in January.

Theo Bucker, Lebanon's German coach, is astonished at the turn of events, even as he has been at the centre of them.

"If you compare the two organisations, the UAE organisation and ours, the Emiratis are light years ahead and beyond our Lebanon football," he said yesterday.

"If you are coming here to the UAE and see all the facilities, and the organisation and their clubs, we are jealous, and this is another big compliment for our players." He recalled that the UAE coach six months ago, Srecko Katanec, had complained about the bumpy pitch at Camille Chamoun.

"And he was correct," Bucker said, labelling the practice pitch at Al Jazira, where his team trained on Monday, to be "better than any field in Lebanon".

The UAE are not the only side that Lebanon have shocked in a qualifying campaign that has caught the imagination of global football fans, most certainly including Lebanon's far-flung expatriate population.

Bucker's side held Kuwait in Beirut in October and defeated them in Kuwait City in November. They followed that with a stunning 2-1 victory over South Korea, an Asia superpower, four days later, before a capacity crowd of 38,000.

The results have reinvigorated football in a country where basketball had nearly eclipsed it as a spectator sport, and prompted the government to allow spectators to attend club matches for the first time since 2005, when the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated, an event which predated an Israeli invasion of Lebanon a year later.

"When you consider the war of 2005 and 2006, there was a complete stop of football," Bucker said. "It came to a complete standstill. We dropped down under the carpet."

Lebanon's football league struggled to remain alive, and the national team all but went out of business. Bucker, a long-time resident of Beirut, said the Lebanese never lost their love of the game but they had to express it in other ways.

"You go to Beirut, and the balconies are decorated with German, Brazilian, Argentina flags," he said.

"Lebanon people were very much in favour of football but they had no address to call their own. Now they find their own team is playing good football, and now we are a unit, and this is a very good situation to be in."

Lebanon's victory over the UAE six months ago spurred the national side in other ways. The government committed more funds to the football association, which allowed the national team to conduct two training camps in Qatar, an unimaginable luxury six months ago.

Fitzroy Morrissey, writing in the Daily Star, suggested that the underpinning of Lebanon's campaign is easy to understand: "This Lebanon side, with its regular training camps, highly skilled coaching entourage and clear tactical game plan, is more professional than any other in the country's history."

Lebanon's victory over the UAE also led to improved training situations for several players, who took up offers to play internationally.

UAE clubs hired three of their leading players - the defender Yousuf Mohammed (Al Ahli), the winger Hassan Maatouk (Ajman) and the midfielder Abbas Ali Atwi (Dubai). At least five starters for Lebanon today will come from international clubs.

None of the UAE's players will.

An example of Lebanon's rise in fortunes? One of the dozen or so journalists who have travelled to the UAE engaged Bucker in a debate over who should be the goalkeeper against the UAE, Ziad Samad or the Sweden-based Abbas Hassan.

Said Bucker: "A couple of months ago, no one in Lebanon would start a discussion such as this because no one knows anything about Abbas or Ziad. Now there is an explosion. We are very much happy that now we talk about who is best. This documents our situation."

Lebanon is riveted by their football team's surge. "It's the biggest sports story in who knows how long, certainly in this century" said Laurie. "Lebanon are very proud because this is the World Cup, and nothing is bigger in world sport."

Bucker's team are riding a wave of popularity.

"All Lebanese people know about this, even the four million who live outside the country, and they can be proud now," he said. "Lebanon was a blank spot on the map of world football; there was no Lebanon football. Everywhere I went, they are saying, 'You are coming from Lebanon? There is no football there.' Now we can raise our head. We are something."