After entering as one of the pre-tournament favorites, the Lebanese were sent packing following a quarterfinals loss in the FIBA ASIA cup. One question has been on everyone’s mind since then: Where did it all go wrong?
After losing 79-72 to a defensively strong Qatari side, The Cedars failed to defend their 2010 title, but that was not the only thing to bemoan, as the early exit showed that Lebanon is definitely not on the right track for a so-called long-term plan to qualify for the World Championship for the fourth time.
Exclusion of players
Although the preparations have been extremely bad recently with the federation struggling to secure good funding for the national team, coaching decisions haven’t gone well either.
Since his appointment, Ghassan Sarkis has been preaching regeneration and the introduction of new players into the squad. It is safe to say that Lebanon definitely need to rely slowly on new young faces.
Yet sadly, Sarkis has kept some, while he excluded others, without even considering the needs of the team.
For example, most of the players who Sarkis ruled out, were known to be good shooters such as Rony Fahed, Matt Freije and Omar Turk. He could have used the sharp shooting of Freije, leadership of Fahed, and accuracy of Turk in the last game against Qatar when Stephan or Akl were having bad shooting days.
But instead, we saw that Lebanon played the whole tournament with a seven-player rotation, while five players of his “long term plan” were sitting on the bench with no role or contribution.
Sarkis could have called upon the new young talents such as Charles Tabet, Rodrigue Akl and Elie Stephan with the veteran players that we named above, without forgetting talisman Fadi al-Khatib which would have proved a formidable side in their attempts to keep up with the best teams in Asia.
Where was the young talent?
Nevertheless, if Sarkis has been truly working on building a new young team, where was Riyadi’s highly touted youngster Ahmad Ibrahim?
Ibrahim was part of the national team in the Jones Cup friendly tournament almost three weeks before the Japan trip. The 20-year old guard averaged almost 30 minutes and 10 points per game, as he showed glimpses of a potential future star.
Despite that, Ibrahim had a few weaknesses, just as any other rising talent who is yet to learn international basketball would.
Sarkis opted to call Elie Rustom, who was personally claiming not to be at his best after a year of absence due a serious injury, while he also kept Nadim Souaid and Hussein al-Khatib, who both haven’t convinced on international level so far with the latter granted no action on court.Old habits die hard
The odd decisions raise questions about the overall talent of the team. Sarkis has been given the green light to call on the players he sees fit and drop those that he doesn’t. But the leeway came with one condition: that the team would reach a time where the inclusion of Khatib was just to add firepower to the strength of the team.
Yet what we have been seeing in three events Khatib participated in under Sarkis, starting from the Arab Games to the WABA championship and most recently the FIBA ASIA cup is that his role has increasingly become the go-to guy like never before.
The Lebanese national teams who made it to the World Championship three times in the past were never solely dependent on Khatib.
He was definitely the main man, but there were many players around him who cushioned the blow for the tiger, such as Rony Fahed, Joe Vogel and Brian Beshara.
That was not a team for the future
There are many international and national teams who went through a regeneration – most notably in the last decade in Serbia, Turkey, Lithuania and Greece. Actually, every country has a golden generation which sometimes comes once every hundred years. The difference is when you start a similar program to prepare a young team, you must have a vision and objectives of how to go about it. You can’t claim to do that when the national team barely gets out of Lebanon for a friendly tournament, or when you are practicing once a day, or when every time a tournament gets closer, you recall four or five veteran players.
Any coach would need to use the current generation to their best, and in doing so lay the groundwork for a future plan with a difrent team which would be joined by relatively young players such as Tarek Dagher, Wael Arakji, Samer Ozeir, Ali Haidar and so on. Those players are some of the best talents in the country, and if we are really aware of the necessity to prepare a young team, the course of action should be clear.
A change in mentality
During the previous years, the East Asian powerhouses have introduced new methods in their basketball trainings in an attempt to keep up with the emergence of the West Asian teams who have posed an increasing threat since 2001.
South Korea, Japan and the Philippines were always known for their fast-paced game, sharp shooting and quick ball movement. However, during recent years, they have turned to a more physical style while maintaining their mobility as a natural weapon.
They delved more and more into hiring foreign coaches, mostly from Europe, after adding naturalized players. Japan had Sean Hinkle and JR Henderson and Philippines Marcus Douthit in the last tournament.
Their changes have almost made the individualistic West Asian teams suffer in the last two years, and remarkably in the last year, three East Asian teams made it to the semifinals of the FIBA ASIA championship in Wuhan – China, the Philippines and South Korea.
Meanwhile, Lebanon have yet to abandon their old fashioned basketball methods. The one dimensional tactic of giving the ball to Khatib in the back-court, or down in the front court, and expecting him to deliver without fail on every occasion is simply unsustainable. This way might work for one or two games, but it definitely won’t for a whole tournament, where games are played on a daily basis. Moreover, the other coaches are aware of Lebanon’s slow rhythm and tempo, making it easy to defend against them.
Is it only a coaching problem?
Would sacking Sarkis solve everything? The answer is definitely no. Although Sarkis should have the courage to admit that his plan was a disaster, the federation carries an even greater responsibility. First, they are charged with supervising and analyzing the work of Sarkis a year on from his appointment. And second, they can’t hide from their duty to raise the money required for the national team to get good preparation, but the naturalization of a good center has become almost impossible with the current low budget.
The Lebanese must take this opportunity to remodel their national team. Khatib remains a class act with the necessary tools to lead the team. Yet he has to be joined by players who can contribute on the international stage, such as Freije, Fahed, Turk and Ibrahim.