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.