There don’t seem to be many things that can unite the whole of Lebanon, but the national football team has been managing that of late. The Cedars have progressed into the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup for the first time in their history.
Drawn in a group containing continental heavyweight South Korea, as well as Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, Lebanon was expected to finish at the bottom, and certainly not anywhere near the top two spots that provide entry to the last stage. That impression seemed confirmed in the opening game after a 6-0 thrashing just outside Seoul. Lebanon looked every inch like a team placed146 in FIFA’s world rankings.
But somehow, German coach Theo Bucker turned it around. The Cedars managed wins against UAE and Kuwait, and then came something special. On November 15, South Korea came to Beirut expecting to win easily, but were stunned to lose 2-1. The whole country went crazy.
Sectarian fault lines run deep in the nation, something that’s reflected in its football, with different communities involved in different teams. Hezbollah has links to leading team Al Ahed; Al Ansar is the club of the Sunni Muslims; and the Druze and Maronite Christians have interests of their own. But the national team players are drawn from all sections of the country.
After the Korea win, the odds were in Lebanon’s favor to progress. All the team needed to do was win in United Arab Emirates in the final match, and even if that did not happen, there was still a good deal of hope. If South Korea didn’t lose to Kuwait in Seoul, then Lebanon would still be through regardless.
And that is exactly what happened. Lebanon lost 4-2 in Abu Dhabi, but Korea came through to defeat Kuwait 2-0. The East Asians topped the group, but the boys from Beirut were delighted with second place.
Star midfielder Roda Antar blamed the media for the defeat in a sign that perhaps the players realize that things have changed:
“We are glad to reach the final stage of World Cup qualifying, we are happy without a doubt this achievement…When we arrived in UAE, there were more than 70 journalists at the hotel where we were staying, as well as fans… We must be allocated closed camp away from such an atmosphere so that we can work quietly and offer the level of a good quality that we did in the playoffs,” he said.
This is the big time now, and should Lebanon get a good start in the final stage – though the likes of Japan and Australia could be in the group – the media will go really crazy.
The ten teams will be split into two groups of five. The top two from each go straight to Brazil. The two teams that finished third meet each other for the right to take on a South American nation with an extra place at the World Cup at stage.