As expected Lebanon’s participation in the Arab Cup comes with a couple of mitigating factors. First, all of the country’s professional players will not be performing, including Youssef Mohammad (big loss), Ramez Dayoub (not a big loss), Mohammad Ghaddar and Abbas Hasan (who cares) as well as the injury sufferers Roda Antar and Mahmoud al-Ali.
By now though Lebanon should be past excuses and in this competition there is less need for their star players. Antar and Ali have missed six games. The team have been training for two months solid and one would expect that a certain amount of cohesion has developed that will cover up the lack of quality.
Lebanon may be in their most productive spell ever but they have only won one game in 2012, a 1-0 win against Iraq in January, their first game of the year. The anti-climax of losing the final game of World Cup qualifying third round to the UAE was surprisingly deflating and put off many of the casual fans – the type of supporters that superlative football novelist Nick Hornby referred to as “Sod-This-For-a-Lark” fans – and popped the confidence bubble that surrounded the team.
Ever since then everything has been labored. Theo Bucker seems to shout more at his players during training and more players seem to turn their ear to it. An ever-expanding roster of players, including many unsuccessful attempts to find and then integrate Lebanese players plucked from the diaspora, appears to have unsettled harmony and has increased the quality of the squad only marginally, if at all.
Friendlies against Jordan, Oman and Egypt suggested Lebanon’s best days may be confined to just October and November 2011, and that the promising new generation of players may not be as good as first hoped. Confidence continued to sag and more Sod-This-For-a-Lark fans began to sagely furrow their brows and declare that the team was an embarrassment and that Bucker was the one to blame.
The first game of the World Cup qualifying fourth round against Qatar drew a full house at Cite Sportive, but a scratchy defeat only alienated the naysayers more and turned off the casual fans.
The creditable results in the next two games – 1-1 against Uzbekistan and 3-0 away against South Korea – brought confidence in the team back down to pre-Bucker levels.
The Arab Cup could be the perfect remedy for the national team. It will be played outside of the country, and the squad will have plenty of time to continue gelling and finding their rhythm.
The new wave of negativity can be traced back to the moment Antar got booked against South Korea in November. Since then injury and suspension have robbed Lebanon of their best player – “he is 50 percent of the team,” Bucker and numerous members of the squad have told The Daily Star over the past six months.
The team at the moment is essentially a post-Antar team. Lebanon’s new protagonists are still learning how to command a match without their talisman. When Antar plays, everything is easier for everyone. Antar’s passing, movement and leadership are so important to Lebanon that it was inevitable that a slump would follow an injury.
Tournament football, however, is a great place for players to find themselves, gain confidence and leave the campaign as different players.
Young midfielders like Nader Matar, Mohammad Chammas, Rabih Ataya and Hussein Dakik can use the tournament as a springboard for the rest of their careers. It is common in tournament play to see an individual play a good first game and ride his newfound confidence for the rest of his career.
Ali’s absence opens the door for Hasan Mohammad, Hasan Chayto or Akram Moghrabi to make a name for themselves. Any of these players can find this confidence away from the critical eye of many of the armchair supporters and against opposition that are little better than they are.
And it is the quality of the opposition in the Arab Cup that is the most important thing. Iraq is the only team apart from Lebanon still in with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup from the Asian Zone while the favorites Egypt are playing with an under-23 side.
In short, Lebanon have nothing to fear. The only team that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Lebanon on paper is the one that Lebanon have beaten in 2012. Look back at that fixture in January. No Antar, no Mohammad, no professional players.
Lebanon have an excellent chance of refinding their confidence, regaining public support and elevating some of the younger players.