Football in Lebanon

A blog dedicated to all things football-related in Lebanon, written by English student and football writer Fitzroy Morrissey from Achrafieh, Beirut.

A symbol of Lebanon’s new identity

Nearly three days have now passed since Lebanon’s 2-1 victory over South Korea at the Cite Sportive, a time that has allowed for reflection on the extraordinary events of that famous Tuesday. 

What I can’t get out of my head is the feeling that the win wasn’t a shock at all, despite almost no one having predicted the result. Ahead of the game, many of us involved in Lebanese football just had this feeling that this was the moment that everything would come together. For all their success, the Koreans didn’t seem so frightening a prospect in light of the positivity surrounding the game in Lebanon at the moment. Reading back my match previews, what’s striking is that the optimistic tone of my comments doesn’t seem in any way forced. Here’s me last Saturday:

"September’s 6-0 scoreline [when South Korea thrashed Lebanon in Seoul] reflects the gulf in quality that exists between the South Korea and Lebanon squads. And yet, if Lebanon can disrupt the visitors’ passing game early on, taking advantage of any Korean rustiness, and if the crowd can get behind the hosts as it did against Kuwait last month, then maybe, just maybe, the Cite Sportive might witness its most famous occasion of all come Tuesday evening."

And again on the day of the game:

Tuesday’s game is likely to be something of a different story [from the 6-0], however, and not just because South Korea, who Friday only just overcame basement side UAE, traditionally struggle when playing in the Middle East and have top scorer and captain Park Chu-Young suspended. From the home team’s perspective, Lebanon are riding a wave of optimism that is unprecedented in the modern era. This is already the country’s best performance in a World Cup qualifying tournament, and the side has been improving game upon game….

More than all of this, Lebanon can surely rely on another big turnout in the stands. Much has changed since only 8,000 attended the UAE game in September, and, with the Lebanese FA issuing tickets for the match, some supporters may even find themselves disappointed. Almost incredibly, it has been reported that Hashem Haidar, president of the Lebanese FA, has met with Prime Minister Najib Mikati to see if workers in the public sector and schoolchildren could be given time off tomorrow afternoon so that they can watch the much anticipated match. There is surely no better indication of how interest in the national team has been revived.

With football in Lebanon riding so high, South Korea will need to be on their game to ensure the home side don’t take an even bigger scalp Tuesday.” 

I’m by no means laying claim to powers of premonition, or even suggesting that I truly believed Lebanon would win. Rather, the point is that Tuesday’s result is part of a much grander narrative surrounding the revival of Lebanese football. Since September, when the UAE were defeated 3-1, football in Lebanon has seen nothing but positive news. First there was the 40,000 strong crowd that turned up to the Kuwait game, which was followed by positive results in friendlies against Iraq and Thailand in Doha earlier this month. And then, in the last week, the surprise wins against Kuwait and South Korea.

So what’s at work here? It bears repeating that Lebanon have some very good players playing at the top of their game right now. Roda Antar is leading the side by example; Haytham Faour, a Scott Parker style midfield battler, is turning out to be an absolute gem of a player and the perfect complement to Antar’s languid style; Hassan Maatouk is fulfilling his undoubted promise on the wing; Ziad el-Samad is one of the bravest goalkeepers you’ll see; Mahmoud el-Ali never stops running up front; Hasan Chaito and Ramez Dayoub defend like they’re playing for their lives.

And most importantly, the players have been injected with that crucial belief in their ability that may have been previously lacking. For that, coach Theo Bucker, a revelation since his return in August, should take much of the credit. Before the South Korea game, Bucker told me that the main focus of his team talk had been the importance of playing without fear, and without a sense of inferiority. That the players carried through on his words is a testament to their newfound mentality and to the coach’s powers of motivation. 

Football works in cycles, and Lebanon are clearly in a cycle of good form, confidence and team unity right now. The aftermath of victory saw many herald the unitive power of football, as Lebanese from all backgrounds shared in the nation’s success. The Daily Star’s front page headline: “Lebanon United”, captured the feeling perfectly. 

 For the first time in a long time, the Lebanese public have a football team which represents strong values worth emulating: unity, professionalism, industry, ability and, most of all, success. If the national team can continue on its upward curve, then Lebanon may have a new symbol of its modern identity. With so much dividing people these days, particularly in Lebanon, if football can be scene to reflect common values shared by the Lebanese people, then it will have played a very important role indeed. 

Lebanon win without “parking the bus”

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on 16th November, 2011:

Don’t be fooled. Lebanon’s 2-1 victory over South Korea may well put them in the class of giant killers extraordinaire, but this upset didn’t follow the formula of so many before it.

On a high after a string of good results, Lebanon didn’t arrive at the Cite Sportive content to park the team bus in front of the goal, attempting only to prevent South Korea from scoring and earn an draw against the run of play.

Coach Theo Bucker had stressed in the buildup to the game that his players had nothing to fear against more renowned opposition, and was true to his word by refusing to resort to the defensive strategy that a more cautious coach would no doubt have employed. It’s been said that Lebanese players are finely attuned to the mood of their fans, responding to their supporters’ jumps in emotion with their performance on the pitch. From the start of Tuesday’ match, it was clear that Lebanese players and fans alike were in a positive, not to say aggressive mood. With an estimated 40,000 charging up the atmosphere at the Cite Sportive, Lebanon’s players could hardly sit back and let their more illustrious opponents dictate the play.

It was apparent that Lebanon were up for it and were going to play solid football. Captain Roda Antar, largely anonymous against Kuwait last week, showed a few early touches of class, clearly relishing the big stage. With barely five minutes gone, a good move saw Lebanon earn a free kick just outside the box. A temporary hush descended on the crowd, as if it sensed that this was the moment. They were right. Defender Ali al-Saadi’s goal was met with a delirium that combined euphoria and pinch-yourself disbelief.

The challenge for Lebanon was how they would respond to going ahead so early on. A weaker team would have retreated into its shell, quaking at the prospect of 85 minutes under an inevitable barrage of attacks. But this Lebanon side is made of sterner stuff than that. Adhering to Bucker’s fearless approach, Lebanon’s players continued to pass and move. Mahmoud al-Ali was doing a lot of running up front, looking for a threaded pass into the channels and keeping the South Korea defense pinned back. Meanwhile Haytham Faour was snapping at Korean heels in midfield, creating space for Antar to look for the decisive pass.

Rattled by the early goal, Korea soon began to grow in confidence. Set pieces proved a particularly effective means of attack, with Lebanon’s defenders unsure how to deal with balls curled into the six-yard box. It was from a free kick that the visitor’s chance to equalise would come, with the referee awarding a penalty for Saadi’s high-boot. Koo Ja Cheol may have made no mistake from the spot, but the crowd, and the Lebanon players with them, refused to be cowed.

Still electrified by the shock of taking the lead, no one from Lebanon was resigning themselves to the inevitability of defeat.

Again Lebanon responded to the goal in the best possible way. The defense kept its high line. Ali continued to run the channels. Antar and Faour were holding their own in midfield, while left-winger Hassan Chaito was doing a good job defensively on Cha Du ri. On the half-hour mark Ali’s running amounted to something tangible, as he was bundled over in the area to give the referee no choice but to award a penalty. Ali celebrated his contribution like he’d scored the winner in the last minute. The fans appeared to feel the same way. Abbas Atwi ensured that there were no red faces with a confidently struck spot-kick.

To say that Lebanon held on to their lead until halftime would be to discredit the home side, for Ziad Samad was barely troubled in the Lebanon goal. That they did go into the dressing rooms still ahead will have done much to reassure the players that they need have no inferiority complex. President Michael Sleiman’s appearance during the break, meanwhile, gave a further lift to the fans.

Lebanon played it perfectly in the second half, neither pushing too far forward, nor getting stuck in their own half. Faour in defensive midfield epitomized all that was good about the Lebanon performance. Committed, aggressive and smart in possession, Faour’s efforts ensured that South Korea could never get their passing game going. In defense, Walid Ismail and Saadi, both normally second-choice, made sure that star defender Youssef Mohammad was barely missed, and the second period saw Lebanon deal much better with South Korea’s set-pieces.

Goalkeeper Ziad al-Samad, decisive and brave under the high ball, was at the heart of this improvement. Only once, deep into injury time, did Korea truly look like equalising, but Ahmad Zreik, a titan in defense, produced a vital last-ditch tackle. There was no way that Lebanon’s players were going to throw away their shot at immortality.

Since the Cedars earned an unexpected victory in Kuwait last Friday to take them to second place in World Cup Qualifying Group B, interest in the national side from the press, politicians and fans has peaked to an unprecedented level. Prime Minister Najib Mikati even agreed to give workers and schoolchildren time off Tuesday afternoon so that they could watch the game. Some sides would have crumbled under the weight of expectation. Not Lebanon. Not under Theo Bucker. The hosts positively thrived in the spotlight, as if liberated by the chance to perform on the big stage.

Most importantly, through Bucker’s and his players’ courageous tactical approach, Lebanon demonstrated that they can do more than just spoil the big guns’ party. Instead, they showed that a Lebanese team can play proper football, remaining patient when in possession, playing the incisive pass when required, and defending with organisation and discipline. Simple tactics, perhaps, but football is a simple game when played effectively.

Against South Korea, Lebanon served notice that they can play as effectively as any side in Asia. With the fourth round of World Cup qualifiers beckoning, which team now would welcome the prospect of a game in Beirut?

Read more: 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Lebanon look to match, beat South Korea

The Cite Sportive in Beirut has witnessed some remarkable events in recent months. First there was Lebanon’s surprise 3-1 victory over the UAE in September, which sparked delirious celebrations among players and the 8,000 fans that were at the game.

On the back of that result, more than 40,000 supporters flooded into the stadium to watch the national side’s pulsating 2-2 draw with Kuwait, recalling the glory days of Lebanese football, when packed stadiums were the norm rather than the exception.

Tuesday will see the third installment of the trilogy, as much-fancied South Korea come to town, looking to wrap up qualification from World Cup Qualifying Group B. Tuesday’s game presents a good opportunity for a Lebanon side with little to lose. Few have given the home side much of a chance in the lead-up to the game, which is hardly surprising given that September’s fixture between the two teams in Seoul ended in a 6-0 win for South Korea. Yet two months is a long time in international football, and much has changed since then.

The Lebanese side, for one, has seen results pick up since former boss Theo Bucker returned in August to replace Emile Rustom. Though Bucker oversaw the 6-0 defeat in his first game in charge, there was little that he could have changed less than a month into his tenure.

The good results against the UAE and Kuwait that followed, however, suggest that the German manager’s return has had a positive impact on the squad. The coach has brought exiled stars Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad back into the national set-up, and looks to be getting the best out of highly-rated young forward Hasan Maatouk.

A 3-1 win over Thailand in a friendly match in Doha earlier this week is testimony to the progress that the Lebanon side has made since its hammering at the hands of South Korea. Ahead of Lebanon’s match with Kuwait Friday, Bucker was adamant that heavy defeats like that one are a thing of the past.

“Certainly, the Lebanese game has changed from before. No game will be counted as an easy defeat like in the past, when the team was losing by five or six goals,” he told El-Nashra Sports.

By contrast, since the two sides last met, South Korea has struggled to four points from games against Kuwait and the UAE that were expected to yield comfortable wins. A 1-1 draw in Kuwait was a particularly disappointing result for the Koreans, yet one that should not have come as much of a shock.

Though traditionally one of the strongest teams in Asia, South Korea tends to struggle in the Middle East. Since 2000, and not counting Friday’s game against the UAE in Dubai, South Korea has won just nine of 23 games played in the region, losing eight and drawing six.

Given that the Koreans would normally expect to beat teams from the Middle East, it is a record that shows the importance of home advantage, particularly when it comes to being acclimatized to the conditions in international football.

Ahead of his squad’s arrival in Dubai, coach Cho Kwang-Rae acknowledged the potentially crucial role that the conditions will play, telling the Korea Herald of the “blistering weather” that he expected to encounter in the Middle East. While Beirut has seen a noticeable drop in temperatures of late, playing two games in the Middle Eastern heat in quick succession may prove a challenge for some of the South Korea players, particularly those based in Europe.

Furthermore, South Korea’s preparation for the upcoming qualifiers has been dogged by a public spat between the coach and Scottish club Celtic. The Celtic management weren’t happy with the way their player Ki Sung-Yong, who has been suffering from illness, was being treated by the Korean medical staff. Though the row has since been resolved, with Ki ruled out of Korea’s match against UAE and perhaps for the Lebanon game, such distractions are hardly ideal ahead of a crucial round of matches.

The Ki controversy isn’t the only issue that should give Korean fans cause for concern. While the large number of South Koreans playing their club football in Europe reflects the high reputation of Korean football on the international stage, many of these players, like Arsenal’s Park Chu-Young and Sunderland’s Ji Dong-Won, have enjoyed very little actual playing time this season. But Coach Cho isn’t worried about his players’ lack of match practice:

“When you have lots of experience and are in a good physical condition then you don’t lose your ability to switch on for competitive games,” he insisted last month, according to the Associated Press.

Perhaps Cho is right not to be concerned. Despite struggling to earn a starting berth since his move to the Emirates Stadium, Park has still managed seven goals in his last four international games, and lies second in the goalscoring charts for this round of qualifiers with five goals. And yet, in an ideal world the coach would clearly want his players to be playing every week, as all of Lebanon’s players currently do.

Despite all of this, the fact remains that South Korea possess a number of high-class players, and sit comfortably at the top of the group going into the upcoming round of fixtures. Cho’s record as manager since his appointment in 2010 is impressive; he has led his team to 11 wins from 18 games, with just two defeats.

September’s 6-0 scoreline reflects the gulf in quality that exists between the South Korea and Lebanon squads. And yet, if Lebanon can disrupt the visitors’ passing game early on, taking advantage of any Korean rustiness, and if the crowd can get behind the hosts as it did against Kuwait last month, then maybe, just maybe, the Cite Sportive might witness its most famous occasion of all come Tuesday evening.

Read more: 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Lebanon win long ball battle

When they come to write the story of how Lebanese football awoke from the ashes of abject misery, Friday evening’s 1-0 win over Kuwait will feature prominently in the account.

So too will coach Theo Bucker, who has overseen a remarkable renaissance in the national team’s fortunes since his return to Lebanon in August.

A surprise 3-1 victory over UAE in September was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Kuwait, before last night’s famous win, to leave Bucker dangerously close to national treasure territory. If truth be told, the win over Kuwait was not exactly born of the tactical genius of their coach. In the build-up to the game, Bucker had insisted that a draw would constitute a decent result, and the first half did little to alter the perception that Kuwait was much the stronger of the two sides, as they enjoyed almost exclusive possession of the football.

Lebanese goalkeeper Ziad al-Samad was called into action on a number of occasions, as Kuwait launched long ball after long ball into the Lebanese half. Not helped by the early loss of defenders Youssef Mohammad and Abbas Kenaan to injury, the Lebanon defense was struggling to deal with Kuwait’s long ball tactics. The hosts found particular joy when launching the ball wide to experienced winger Waleed Ali out on the left, with Lebanon’s replacement right back Walid Ismail struggling to adapt to the pace of the game.

In reality, Kuwait’s apparent success with the long ball was ultimately to prove their undoing. Time and again they resorted to the increasingly predictable tactic, as if trying to imitate an old-boys’ side from an English public school. Both sides, in fact, seemed to forget the existence of the midfield, with Lebanon captain Roda Antar, the most cultured passer of the ball on show, struggling to get into the game. For their part, Lebanon’s wide men, Mahmoud al-Ali and Hasan Maatouk, were well shackled by their opposite numbers, with Maatouk in particular looking increasingly isolated out on the left flank.

The half meandered to a close with the scores still 0-0, and both teams’ requiring a bit more inventiveness in their attacking play. As the away side and the underdog, Lebanon will have been much happier going into the break, as the game was bound to open up in the second half, leaving more room for the Lebanon forwards to exploit on the counter-attack.

The arrival of the second half brought with it confirmation that Kuwait lacked the ingenuity to offer any more going forward than the 9-iron out from defence. Lebanon, too, looked a little lost for ideas.

In the first game between the two sides in October, Maatouk had proven himself to be Lebanon’s most dangerous player going forward, particularly when cutting in from the left-hand side onto his stronger right foot, like a mirror image of archetypal inside-out winger Arjen Robben. Kuwait’s defense was clearly wise to the ploy this time around, however, and despite seeing more of the ball, Maatouk was repeatedly stopped in his tracks as soon as he cut inside. Kuwait right back Amer Matoug is hardly the most conservative of full backs, yet was showing good discipline in doing a man-marking job on Maatouk.

To the encouragement of the vocal away support, Roda Antar was increasingly growing into the game, and twice forced saves from long distance, all the while strolling around the park as if he had contempt for a bit of honest toil. As Kuwait’s players tired, the pressing game that had worked well for them in the first half deserted them, allowing the Lebanese defenders more time to pass the ball out from the back.

With Maatouk still finding no space to work in on the left, Lebanon suddenly remembered that they had a second winger, and worked the ball smartly to Mahmoud al-Ali, who converted Lebanon’s first real chance to make it 1-0 on 56 minutes. In a game not exactly remarkable for the quality of passing from both teams, here was a genuinely well-worked move that shone out amid the gloom of Kuwait’s long ball approach.

A 1-0 lead can be a test of a team. A mentally weak side will crumble, unable to bear the weight of holding so slender an advantage. That Lebanon only grew in confidence is a testament to the team spirit and organization instilled by Bucker in his players. Where the defense had looked tentative and accident-prone in the first half, now it seemed increasingly steady and assertive. The gaps between the defenders were narrowed. The defensive line was held.

Walid Ismail, meanwhile had taken a leaf out of the Kuwait right back’s book and was doing a job on his winger. The Kuwaitis were becoming exasperated, unable to countenance a change of approach, save sending the full backs forward, which only opened up the space for Lebanon’s forwards on the counter attack. Ali ought to have added to his tally after working the ball onto his left foot from 10 yards out.

That Lebanon were able to hold on so comfortably was all the more impressive given that the coach only had one substitute to play with, having been handicapped by the early loss of two of his defenders. Striker Mohammad Ghaddar was brought on to hold the ball up, his experience coming in useful as the clock ticked down. Though it was Kuwait that needed a goal, Lebanon created the better chances in the final moments, and could have sewn up victory well before the final whistle.

Lebanon’s profligacy wasn’t to matter. At the end, players and staff celebrated on the pitch as if they had achieved qualification for the World Cup itself. In a way, it felt like that. This was a landmark moment for the Lebanese game. The players demonstrated togetherness, tactical discipline and ability to adapt to the situation, characteristics vital to any successful side, and found the inspiration to create a high-quality goal when the moment required. For that, they were worthy winners.

Kuwait hoping on miracle worker of their own

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2011, on page 15.

While many have attributed Lebanon’s recent upturn in performance to the return of German coach Theo Bucker, Friday’s World Cup Qualifying opponents Kuwait have enjoyed a similar renaissance under Serbian boss Goran Tufedgzic.

Just as Bucker first came to coach in Lebanon at the turn of the century, so too did Goran, as he is known in Kuwait, first arrive in the Middle East in 2002 to work as an assistant at Kuwait Premier League club Al-Qadsia.Since he was appointed Kuwait coach in 2009, Goran has overseen some remarkable results, including a 1-0 win over Australia in 2009 and a 1-1 draw with South Korea earlier this year.

Most importantly, with Kuwait having made 12 managerial changes since 2000, Goran has brought much needed stability to the national team. Stability and consistency, in the coaching setup and team selection, are buzzwords that Kuwait’s coaches, players and fans have repeated over and over again since Goran took charge.

Ahead of the World Cup Qualifying Third Round Group B game against Lebanon, Goran identified consistency of selection as one of the factors in his side’s favor.

“The opportunity is there for the Blues [Kuwait] because there are a number of factors in our favor, like finding players who are at a better standard than the players of more prominent teams in the region, together with the settled nature of the team that there is at the moment,” he told Al-Bayan.

Experienced player Waleed Ali agreed that it is that crucial stability, more than anything else, that Goran has brought to Kuwait.

“The coaching staff and management are very settled right now, which has given us the freedom to perform on the pitch and win titles,” he said in an interview published on FIFA’s website.

This stability, according to Ali, goes right through Kuwait football, from the administrators down to the players on the pitch.

“As players we’re pushing for wholesale professionalism in Kuwait, but the real key to the revival of the game here is stability in the administrative and coaching setups. Another important thing is that the team have remained more or less unchanged, which gives us the opportunity to gel on the pitch.”

With few changes to the squad that played in the AFC Asian Cup at the beginning of the year and in the earlier qualifiers against South Korea, the UAE and Lebanon, Goran hopes that his players will build up the rapport and sense of solidarity that are so vital to the success of any international side.

“Against Lebanon we must not be divided. Everyone must stand together to achieve victory and get closer to qualifying for the second round,” he told Al-Bayan.

Two things are immediately striking about Goran’s squad, which he has led to a decent return of 23 victories in 54 games. The first is its youth: The average age of the match-day squad in last month’s game against Lebanon in Beirut was just over 24.

Yet despite its youthfulness, the squad also contains a number of very experienced players on the international stage.

Leading the way with 107 caps is striker Bader al-Mutwa, closely followed by Waleed Ali, who has one fewer. These players, and others like left-back Musaed Neda (70 caps) and goalkeeper Nawaf al-Khaldi (45 caps), have undoubtedly benefitted from the consistency of selection that has been the hallmark of the reigns of Goran and his predecessor Mohammad Ibrahim.

Allied to this experience on the international stage is the fact that only a handful of players in the Kuwait squad play their club football outside of Kuwait, with as many as 11 employed by Al-Qadsia.

In light of this, it is no wonder that the Kuwait squad appears to be an extremely tight-knit unit, an atmosphere that, according to Ali, Goran has done much to foster.

“The most important factor in any coach’s success is his relationship with the players, and right now there’s a great bond between Goran and the boys. He knows the players inside out and also knows what they are capable of, so it’s easy for him to handle them.”

That bond between players and coach has been strengthened by recent successes on the pitch, including tournament victories at the Gulf Cup of Nations and the F.F. West Asian Championships last year.

With Kuwait punching above its weight at the moment, there is no doubt that Lebanon face a tough task to get something out of Friday’s game, particularly if the home crowd plays as important a role as 40,000 Lebanese fans did in the 2-2 draw at Cite Sportive last month.

On the back of a number of good results at home in recent years, including the recent draw with Korea, Kuwait’s fans will be expecting nothing less than three points from the Lebanon game, a fact that the president of the Kuwait FA, Sheikh Talal al-Fahed, reminded his players of this week.

Syrian football under the microscope

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 09, 2011, on page 14.

Lebanon’s recent 6-0 defeat to neighbors Syria in the Under-19 Asian Football Championships qualifiers would usually be cause for much soul searching. After starting the qualification stage strongly, with successive one-goal victories over Palestine and Yemen and a narrow loss to favored hosts the UAE, the Lebanese youngsters were promptly blown away by their Syrian counterparts last week.

Yet rather than reflecting on the present state of Lebanese youth football after such a heavy loss, the Lebanese football establishment has gone on the offensive, accusing Syria of forging the date of birth of a number of their youth team players, and fielding certain players who had played in previous youth tournaments. According to Qatari news’ network Al-Jarayid, Lebanon U-19 manager Samir Saad accused Syria of fielding six players registered with the same date of birth, as well as former youth team players registered under different names and dates of birth, at the recent AFC Qualifiers in Fujairah, UAE.

Immediately after the game, Saad spoke of the “forgery” that had taken place, and confirmed that the Lebanese FA had already lodged a handwritten complaint with the AFC match commissioner, as per AFC regulations.

“We presented our complaint, according to Article 63 of the Asian Football Confederation regulations relating to protests, where the time limit is fixed to the two hours following the match,” Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar quoted Saad as saying.

AFC regulations state that such protests must immediately be followed up with a handwritten report presented to the AFC General Secretariat, followed by a registered letter from the plaintiff member association, in this case the Lebanese FA, to be sent to the AFC secretariat no later than two days after the match in question. At a hastily arranged meeting last Friday, the Lebanese Football Association decided to do just that, setting in motion a process that will no doubt drag on over the coming weeks and months, as the AFC considers the validity of the claim.

The Lebanese protest certainly seems to have much going for it. After last week’s game, Saad claimed that no fewer than six of the Syrian squad had been registered as being born on Jan. 1, 1993. Article 25.iii of the AFC regulations, relating to player eligibility, states that only those players born on or after this date are permitted to play in the 2012 competition and qualifiers. If Saad’s accusations can be verified, it seems unlikely that these players’ common birthdates can be simply explained as a coincidence.

The Syrian football establishment is refusing to concede that the U-19 side’s success in the recent qualifiers, where they registered four wins from four, scoring 10 goals in the process and conceding none, was the result of cheating.

Dr. Marwan Arafat, former president of the Syrian Football Association suggested that the eligibility of the Syrian players was “incontestable,” while Syria’s youth team coach Hassam al-Sayed went even further, accusing Saad of fabricating the claim to distract attention from his Lebanon side’s poor performance. Sayed was quoted by Syria news as saying about the Lebanon coach that he “invented the story to shift the focus of the Lebanese media from the severe defeat onto complaints about the age of our players.”

This is not the first time, of course, that an international youth side has been accused of forging its players’ birth certificates. There were allegations that Brazil won the 2003 World Youth Cup with a team that included a 25-year-old, while similar claims have been made against players from the youth teams of Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria.

Though the Syrian case is unlikely to receive much coverage outside of the Middle East, the potential ramifications could be wide reaching. A disgruntled UAE have already joined Lebanon in complaining to the AFC, while there have been suggestions that India may be in line to replace Syria at next year’s tournament should the allegations be proven. For now, we can expect more verbal wrangling between the Lebanese and Syrian associations, and a lengthy AFC inquiry.

Read more: 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Lebanon star striker Maatouk gaining exposure abroad

This article first appeared in the Daily Star on November 5, 2011

Of the 22 Lebanon players who convened at a training camp in Doha this week ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Kuwait and South Korea, five currently play their club football outside of Lebanon.

They also make up what many consider to be the spine of the side, with Youssef Mohammad (Al-Ahli, UAE) and Ramez Dayoub (Magway, Burma) in defense, captain Roda Antar (Shandong Luneng, China) in midfield, and Mohammad Ghaddar (Al-Jaish, Syria) and Hasan Maatouk (Ajman, UAE) up front. There is little doubt that coach Theo Booker will look to these players to lead the way in the upcoming games.

While the return of former Bundesliga players Mohammad and Antar to the national fold has been much heralded, it is 24-year-old forward Maatouk who is the greatest cause for excitement.

Against Kuwait last month, Maatouk’s forays down the left-hand side constituted Lebanon’s principal attacking weapon, and despite being deployed as a winger rather than in his favored position as an out-and-out striker, he still managed to come away with two goals.

Few of the 40,000 Lebanon fans that turned up to the game will forget the first, as he cut in from the left, playing a one-two with Abbas Atwi before gliding past two Kuwait defenders and striking the ball emphatically into the bottom corner.

Maatouk’s second goal, a calmly taken penalty late-on that ought to have won the game for Lebanon, took his tally for the national team to 13 in just 24 appearances, comfortably the best strike rate of Lebanon’s forwards. Factor in his scoring record for Ahed before his transfer to Ajman at the end of September – 89 goals in 120 appearances over six seasons – and it becomes clear that Maatouk knows his way to a goal.

Players with natural goal-scoring ability are like gold dust. They are both a joy and a constant cause for concern for coaches, who fear nothing more than their leading striker suffering an injury or loss of form. Teams are built around such players. Unlikely victories are won through a single moment of class. From an early age, Maatouk was identified as one of those rare players capable of turning a game on its head. Hence, as Booker put it, “he is almost impossible to substitute.”

Despite his fearsome scoring record, his coaches are convinced that such form marks only the beginning. Booker sees him as a potential star of the next decade: “A player like him only comes round every 10 years, not only for Lebanon. Look at all the other countries. Everything comes in waves. It’s not every year that you have a superstar.”

His new club coach at Ajman, the Iraqi Abdul-Wahab al-Qadir, who fought hard to get Maatouk on a season-long loan from Ahed, shares Bucker’s belief that Maatouk is one for the future: “Maatouk is an excellent player. He’ll be important in the future, since he has great technical qualities,” he told Emirati paper Al-Ittihad.

As his coaches for club and country see it, Maatouk is no mere goal poacher; both managers have stationed him in a wide role on the left hand side of a front three. It is a position designed to make the most of Maatouk’s ability with the ball at his feet.

Though he may sometimes run down blind alleys, Maatouk’s direct style of play gives Lebanon an attacking edge that they might otherwise be lacking, and the wide role gives him more opportunities to take on his defender. Moreover, as a right-footer playing on the left, Maatouk’s natural inclination is always to head towards goal, meaning that he still carries a goal-scoring threat even when not stationed centrally.

While his first goal against Kuwait amply demonstrated this, an even more eye-catching strike was Maatouk’s second goal during an impressive debut for Ajman in the Etisalat Cup in October. Picking the ball up just inside the opposition half, Maatouk cut in from the left at pace before smashing the ball into the top right corner from 25 yards out. In the stands, the Ajman owner was on his feet, clearly liking what he saw from his new signing.

A two-goal man-of-the-match performance is some way to announce yourself at your new club, but Maatouk doesn’t seem to be getting carried away by his good beginning:

“I will do my very best to play at a higher level in the coming matches, which will be more difficult after my wonderful start with “the Oranges” [Ajman’s nickname],” he told Al-Ittihad after the game.

Clearly a level-headed individual, there appears to be no danger that the success will go to his head. He made a point of acknowledging how others at the club had helped him to slot seamlessly into his new team:

“I’d like to thank my teammates who helped me on the pitch and the coach who gave me the opportunity, as well as the crowd who gave me a great welcome,” he told the Al-Ittihad reporter.

While Maatouk has failed to register any more goals for his new club, newly promoted Ajman have enjoyed a promising start to the 2011/12 Pro-League season, and remain unbeaten after six games in the league and cup. As the club’s designated Asian player, Maatouk will no doubt have a vital role to play if Ajman are to survive in a division lit up by the presence of big names like Diego Maradona, the coach of Al-Wasl, David Trezeguet and Asamoah Gyan.

Playing in the same league as international stars well known to European football fans will doubtless have its benefits for Maatouk. Such illustrious names give football in the UAE a far higher profile than that enjoyed by the Lebanese game, while the financial rewards of playing in the Emirati state are considerable.

As-Safir newspaper reported that Maatouk will receive $100,000 from his contract with Ajman. Lebanese clubs just can’t compete with this sort of figure, hence a player like Maatouk would choose to leave Ahed, the most successful club in Lebanon over the past two years, for a newly promoted side in the UAE.

Whether the move is that big a step up for Maatouk in terms of the standard of football is open to debate. And despite the league’s higher international profile, the UAE clubs fare little better than their Lebanese counterparts when it comes to drawing in the fans – just over 2,000, slightly under the average attendance at Pro-League fixtures, turned out to watch Ajman’s first league game against Bani Yas. Though football in the UAE may on the surface appear more professional than the Lebanese game, one gets the sense that big names and big wages mask a lack of interest in the game at the grassroots level.

What is clear is that Maatouk’s move to the UAE has put him very much in the shop window. Only last week, Maradona spoke of how he had stayed up all night to watch Ajman, mentioning Maatouk as one of the team’s “outstanding” players. Last month, UAE channel Abu Dhabi Sports reported a rumor that Borussia Dortmund have been weighing up a move for Maatouk, suggesting that he might one day follow the path forged by his Lebanon teammates Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad.

The sort of exposure that Maatouk can get in the UAE is sadly not available to players who remain in Lebanon. Though a move to Europe may beckon in the future, for now it must be hoped that the experience that Maatouk gains in the UAE will help him develop into the “superstar” that Booker has predicted he’ll become. Maatouk’s time in the UAE will have benefited Lebanese football as a whole, helping the national team in the short term, and providing inspiration Lebanon’s aspiring footballers in the long run.

Read more: 
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Nejmeh 1-0 Safa

My Nejmeh vs Safa match report in Monday’s Daily Star

Ten-man Nejmeh made light of their numerical disadvantage Sunday evening, coming out 1-0 winners over city rivals Safa at Cite Sportive. Both sides came into the game looking to build on positive results in last weekend’s first round of matches, and it was Safa that started the brighter in front of a vocal group of Nejmeh supporters.

Big striker Ngo Samuel was causing a number of problems for the Nejmeh defenders, particularly when linking up with midfielders Hussein Hamdan and Akram Moghrabi. Yet despite Safa’s domination of possession, the best chances of the opening exchanges fell to Nejmeh, with forward (29) twice coming close from inside the box.

Then came the first of what were to be several talking points, as the referee waved away Safa’s claims for a penalty, instead booking midfielder Mahmoud al-Zagbi for diving. Undeterred, Safa continued to play all the football, passing the ball out from the back with pleasing ambition.

Samuel continued to make a nuisance of himself upfront, though strayed offside on too many occasions. With the half seemingly meandering to a close, and Safa becoming increasingly frustrated, the deadlock was broken right on the stroke of halftime.

To much surprise and the delight of the boisterous Nejmeh fans, it was Nejmeh that took the lead, as striker Abbas Atwi latched onto a through ball and lashed the ball into the bottom left-hand corner. The players made their way to the tunnel with Atwi’s name reverberating around the stadium.

The goal was to be a game changer. Three minutes into the second half, Nejmeh defender Osama Mansour was sent off for a professional foul on Samuel on the edge of the box. Yet Nejmeh’s slender lead allowed them to play a clever defensive game that Safa had no answer to.

Reigning in all ambition and tightening up their defensive formation, Nejmeh managed to retain their discipline in the face of Safa’s domination of the ball.

For their part, Safa possessed neither the ingenuity nor the penetration to break down the Nejmeh defense. Too often Safa’s defenders hit the ball long toward targetman Samuel, when a more patient and thoughtful approach was required.

Nejmeh managed to frustrate Safa’s players even further through their time wasting tactics, as the stretcher was time and again called onto the pitch. In truth, Safa had no real chances to speak of in the second half, despite their greater numbers, and Nejmeh comfortably saw out the victory, which was greeted at the final whistle by jubilant scenes on the pitch and in the stands.

Akhaa Breaking Down Barriers

This article first appeared in The Daily Star, 29 October 2011:

When it comes to sectarianism in Lebanon, football is generally seen as part of the problem rather than as a potential solution.

Consider the crisis of 2005 after the Rafik Hariri assassination: The government’s response was to ban supporters from the stadiums, out of fear that rivalries between fans would descend into full-scale armed conflict. With most football supporters grouped according to religious confession, and the majority of clubs relying on the financial support of a particular political party, the game in Lebanon reflects the division that has long plagued Lebanese society as a whole.

After the first round of league games last weekend, however, the club that finds itself at the top of the domestic ladder is one that isn’t backed by a political party. What’s more, Akhaa Ahly draw their supporters from across sectarian and political divides, actively encouraging the cooperation of people of different religious backgrounds and political views. Akhaa board member Fares Kobeissi explained how an overhaul in the boardroom fundamentally changed the way that the club operates.

“Two years ago, we decided to have a new board that included people from different political affiliations and different religious confessions, in order to represent a geographical area rather than a political faction,” Kobeissi said.

The geographical area in question is the Mount Lebanon region, with the club playing home games in the town of Aley, which lies about 17 km southeast of Beirut. While its Premier League rivals are all city-based, Akhaa’s strong affiliation with the mountain gives the club a unique identity. Moreover, the relationship colors the way that the club is run, with the board’s focus very much on how Akhaa can reflect the character of the region.

“We are the only team from the mountain,” noted Kobeissi, and with this monopoly on the region’s football comes a great responsibility to ensure that the area is well represented by the club and its staff. Most importantly, this includes a commitment to reflect the political and religious diversity of Mount Lebanon.

“We represent the whole mountain in its great diversification, both sectarian and political. We cover all the well-known religious sects and political factions,” said chairman Ali Abdel Latif, with more than a hint of pride that his team has been able to rise above the sectarian fighting that has marred Lebanese football in recent years. It is clear that this inclusive approach has been part of a conscious effort, led by the new board, to avoid the sectarianism of the other clubs, placing the emphasis instead on the need to celebrate the local area.

Kobeissi’s remarks are like those of his chairman, “Our aim is to represent the multi-confessional, multi-political character of the people of the mountain.” Yet the club’s role is not just to hold up a mirror to the diversity of Mount Lebanon. The board recognizes that Akhaa has a duty, as the only elite sports’ club in the area, to play a leading role in the social development of the region. “Our aim is for the club to play a positive social role in the region,” Abdel Latif said. “It’s not only the results that matter to us; it’s just as important that we play a positive social role. In the mountain we don’t have another club at the same level, capable of attracting the youth of the region.”

Kobeissi said that on-field success goes hand in hand with the club’s community projects. “You can’t separate our social role from our efforts on the pitch. If we were in the second division, we wouldn’t be able to achieve what we’re doing today. If we can achieve a good league position this season, then we’ll be a more attractive side for people to come and support,” he added.

With this in mind, Akhaa’s start to the new season was encouraging for those who hope to see it succeed in its efforts to aid the development of the region. A 4-1 win at home to newly promoted Sidon might tell us little about how the club will fare as the season progresses, with Abdel Latif declaring that “no-one is getting too confident just yet,” yet it is clear that the club is only looking upward. Nonetheless, Ahed coach Theo Bucker, last week, made them his outside bet for the title. Kobeissi, though, was hearing none of it. “The title? That’s quite nice of Bucker to say. But maybe he was trying to put pressure on us!” When the mind games have started this early in the season, you know that your club is being taken seriously.

“Look, we’re going to do the best we can,” continued Kobeissi. “Our goal is to be up in the top five. If we reach halfway through the season and we are six points clear, then maybe we’ll reconsider our goals.”

That Akhaa is even being talked about for the title is something of a minor miracle. Last season was the club’s first back in the top division after a period spent languishing in the second tier. More importantly, the club has had to overcome a handicap shared by none of its rivals, as independence from political involvement makes raising money all the more difficult. While all the other clubs are heavily backed by political parties, Akhaa’s board members have to pay for the running of the club out of their own pockets or seek private backing.

“For the last two and a half years, we have only relied on ourselves and the generous support of some of our good friends in the private sector,” said Abdel Latif. “We receive no support from the government or from the ministry, and only receive a little help from a couple of the municipalities, specifically Aley and Choueifat,” he said.

“What we’ve been doing by not relying on support from a political party is not an easy task,” adds Kobeissi. But the situation is by no means hopeless. “Yes it’s been tough for us to bring in the cash, but so far we’ve been fine. We’ve succeeded until now.”

Despite the obvious difficulties that come with financial independence, Akhaa’s efforts to become self-sufficient must ultimately be the model for the professional clubs to follow if the game is to take off again in the future. Ticket sales, advertising revenue and television money, rather than cash injected by political parties, are the basis for a sustainable professional game. Of course, this will only be achieved if fans are allowed back into the stadiums on a much greater scale. Though the stadium ban was officially lifted in 2010, there are still restrictions on the number of supporters that can attend games.

“Until now, the number of fans at our matches has been limited to 250 for each team,” says Abdel Latif. “ We can definitely bring in thousands. That’s the sort of number that most clubs can achieve.” The strong attendance and lack of violence at last weekend’s game should provide hope for the future. “It’s a good beginning if we’re going to succeed in organizing the security side of things. We hope that the experience of the first few games will encourage the authorities to open things up even further.”

The fate of Lebanese football over the last few years shows how a vicious cycle can quickly be set in motion: sectarian conflict led to a stadium ban, which led to markedly decreased advertising and ticketing revenues for the clubs, which in turn meant that the clubs turned to political parties for financial support, which only increased the sectarian divides. Yet Akhaa Ahly, to its great credit, has managed to break out of the cycle.” Through independence from politics and a focus on the local community, the board has recognized that the club can, in the words of Abdel Latif, “break through the rigid walls of sectarianism.” And this, surely, is the true role of football: not to divide people, but to bring them together.

IFPO Beirut Makes Its First Outing in Lebanon

The reason behind my eight-month sojourn in Beirut is my enrolment on an Arabic language course at the Institute Francais du Proche-Orient (IFPO). The programme had originally been slated to take place in Damascus, yet was moved to Lebanon in August owing to the present volatile situation in the Syrian capital. One of the many upshots of this move was that IFPO, hitherto a regular on the Damascus student football circuit, was left without a football team. The four or five resident researchers in the archaeology of the Middle East can hardly have been expected to have organised a side, hence I arrived in Beirut without a team to play for, and no pre-existing structures in place.

After a conversation with IFPO’s director, Eric Gautier, I assumed the responsibility of setting up a side and arranging fixtures with local rivals like the Universite Saint-Joseph (USJ), and the cool kids at the American University of Beirut (AUB). First off, I had to gauge interest amongst my fellow students in the beautiful game. With my estimable sidekick and vice-captain Chris Lyle on board from the beginning, we set about recruiting for the team. Initial enquiries found positive responses from across the institute’s multiple nationalities; our newly assembled squad contains four Englishmen, three Frenchmen, a Lebanese, an Italian, an Australian and an American, all bound together by the universal language that is football. This is not to mention star recruit Ahmed Karout, a former professional in the Syrian Premier League, who is on loan to IFPO Beirut from the Damascus set-up. A classy midfielder who can play down the right or through the middle, Karout will hopefully add that necessary bit of Middle-Eastern know-how that our fledgling side will no doubt require if we are to succeed in the tough world of Beirut student football.

Once we had a core group of players, our next task was to find a pitch to train on, not easy when you are living in a city without public parks. Most of the Beiruti youth learn the game on concrete pitches or in five a side cages, and it was to the latter that we turned. After setting out from IFPO, which lies next to Mathaf on the Rue de Damas, a few enquiries directed at USJ students, shopkeepers and gun-wielding soldiers led Chris and me to a set of Astroturf pitches. Hoping to book one of the pitches for our first train session, we were dealt with brusquely by the caretaker. If his claim that all five pitches were fully booked other than at 10 o’clock on Monday morning were true, then the health of grassroots football in Lebanon would appear to be very good indeed. Somehow, I doubted his sincerity, and after much wrangling we managed to book a slot on Tuesday afternoon.

The day before our first session, Chris and I went in search of equipment, and struck gold with a nearby sports’ shop owned by a very helpful Armenian woman. We came out with a decent ball, bought for the very reasonable price of 20,000 LLP, and a retro Arsenal away kit from the 2005/6 season. The executive decision was made to save the cones and training bibs for another day.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts on the preparation front, the first session was a rather poorly attended one. This owed more to a clash with a Lebanese dialect class at IFPO than to a lack of interest in the team. There were, however, five committed men who made the short walk to the pitches in between class; such dedication will be the bedrock on which our success will hopefully be based.

After a few basic drills, the men of IFPO, now down to only four after one of our number – Tim Partridge, Durham’s finest – had to leave, were challenged to a four-a-side game against a collection of Lebanese players. We lined up in a 1-2-1 formation, with Fares el-Homsi patrolling things from the back in a sweeper-keeper role, Raphael Raynaud and I on the right and left of the midfield respectively, and Chris Lyle acting as the focal point up top.

The unfamiliarity of the sweltering conditions and our lack of match practise told as the Lebanese, decked out to a man in the strips of European clubs, took an early 2-0 lead. Yet once we had adjusted to the heat the space began to open up, and our one-touch passing left the home side looking like bystanders as we made up the deficit in the space of five minutes. On the right hand side Raphael was dominating his opposite number, while up front Chris was demonstrating his natural eye for goal with two well taken finishes.

Then disaster struck, as Chris was forced to come off with an injured knee. 3 vs 4 will never be a fair contest, and despite the vice-captain valiantly agreeing to stand in goal, it was the Lebanese who were the first to 5 goals. There were many positives to take from our first mini-game, however, not least the quality of some of our movement and passing. If we can get more players down to the ground this coming Tuesday, when there will be no clashes with Arabic classes owing to the All Saints’ Day bank holiday, then hopefully the philosophy of carpet football will be taken on board by all of our players.

Positives from first session/mini-match:

- pleasing commitment to a passing game

- good movement in the opposition half

- good finishing

- good (cross-lingual) communication

Things to work on:

- fitness & ability to conserve energy in the heat

- tactical discipline

- picking the right option when in sight of goal

- numbers at training