Lebanese Football: From Beirut to Buecker

This feature was born out of two factors. Following on from my recent feature on Syrian football, I read in the news that the current unrest has spilled from Syria into neighbouring Lebanon, a country littered with history of war. Secondly being British and living in Australia for four years I have noticed the huge influence Lebanese communities and culture has in Sydney.

Still semi-professional with salaries of $1500 per month, Lebanese domestic football has a more fragmented history than any of its Middle-East counterparts. Currently titled the Lebanese Premier League, the championship kicked off in 1933 and on twenty-seven occasions the season failed to even start with one campaign abandoned mid-way through. Understandably war has taken it’s toll, most notably around the period of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 that saw fourteen out of sixteen seasons cancelled, twelve consecutively.

With a Second Division introduced in 2005, the twelve team Premier League competes as per traditional European standards and the bottom two are automatically relegated. The structure includes the Lebanese Third and Fourth Divisions with teams competing in an annual FA Cup aiming to claim the scalps of their Premier League competitors.

Beirut based Al-Ansar are the undisputed Kings of Lebanese football claiming thirteen league titles including a Guinness World Record eleven consecutive championships from 1988 to 1999, a feat that was only recently beaten by Latvian powerhouses Skonto FC. With six of the league’s twelve teams residing in Beirut the joint second most successful teams on seven crowns are Al-Nejmeh and the fallen but now resurgent giant Homenetmen Beirut, having recently claimed the Third Division Championship. In recent years however Al-Ansar have experienced a six-year drought of Arsenal proportions with Safa of you guessed it, Beirut, winning the last two titles convincingly while Ansar settled on mid-table mediocrity.

Like Syria the Lebanon national team has never qualified for the holy grail of World Cup football. That said their most promising campaign has been Brazil 2014 with five wins and two draws from thirteen games including a historic 2-1 victory against South Korea. With further wins against Kuwait and UAE, for the first time in their history they reached the fourth and final qualifying round of the Asian section, bowing out to Sepp Blatter’s favourite new mistress, Qatar.

However promising ‘The Cedars’ recent history it has not been without controversy. In February 2013 twenty-four players were found to have been directly involved in match fixing across club and international football, gambling large sums of money and affecting the outcome of matches. Two of the team’s star players Ramez Dayoub and Mahmoud El Ali were banned for life by the Lebanese Football Association. Their forthright and oblivious coach Theo Buecker claimed on watching past games it was clear that they would have qualified had it not been for some suspicious open-goal misses and deliberate conceding of possession.

Also blissfully unaware of match-fixing Lebanon’s goalkeeper Abbas Hassan has proved to be a key reason in the team’s progress with his acrobatic agility saving the team consistently. At just twenty-eight years old, a baby in goalkeeper land, his appearances for Swedish League champions IF Elfsborg will only see his ability improve as he matures.

Unfortunately recent scandal has unfairly further dirtied the country’s football reputation and progress with the announcement that two Lebanese assistant referees have been banned for life after accepting sex-for-fixing arrangements while taking control of Asian Champions League games.

National team coach Buecker is keen to start afresh with what he calls a ‘clean’ squad, pleading for less religion and politics in football as well as asking for better facilities for his national team. The reality for Lebanon is that progress may stall; while their Asian and Arab rivals are fast catching up with investment shown by their European cousins, Lebanon could be left in their dust with the astonishing fact that there is not one grass training pitch in the country.

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