BEIRUT: Only months ago it seemed Lebanese basketball was in an unassailable position. The country hosted the FIBA Asia Cup for the first time in history, with legend of the game Yao Ming pictured alongside President Michel Aoun as he praised the sport in Lebanon. Through endorsements, the sport was awash with new funding and FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, announced the opening of an office in Beirut.
But the honeymoon was short. Now, barely three months after the Asia Cup, Lebanese basketball appears to be on the brink of another corruption scandal.
After hosting the 29th Asia Cup finals in August, which saw 16 national teams compete, the Lebanese Basketball Federation was expected to make the first of four $425,000 payments totaling $1.7 million – the tournament’s total hosting fee, on Sept. 30. The due date came and went without any payments made to FIBA. In the weeks following, a war of words erupted between officials from the international federation and the FLB. A new deadline for the first payment was eventually agreed for Dec. 1, with a second payment expected later that month. If the first deadline is not met, Lebanon will be suspended from the International Basketball Federation, FIBA Asia Executive Director Aghub Khajiran warned in a letter dated Nov. 10.
A senior source within the FLB with knowledge of the accounts told The Daily Star that “nothing has changed since the last election; senior people in the federation are using the accounts like a personal ATM.”
“They haven’t paid the hosting fees because the money isn’t there, it’s gone – I have seen the accounts,” the source added.
Minister of State for Combating Corruption Nicolas Tueni told The Daily Star that although he had been made aware of corruptions claims within the basketball federation “some days ago,” he said he “hadn’t yet received the file, and was not able to investigate the matter until then.” Some have blamed the federation’s President Pierre Kakhia, who was president last December on a mandate to clean up both the sport and its governing body.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Kakhia, said, “it’s out of my hands, I cannot authorize the payment, it has to be done by the federation.”
He insisted, “the money is available,” but added, “we are expecting government support – $1 million. We have been waiting on this for some time.”
Kakhia said that it was up to the federation’s committee to come together and authorize the payment and that he was expecting to be “called for a meeting, anytime.”
Kakhia was accused by his deputy Doumat Kallab this week as being responsible for the missed payments. Kakhia hit back, claiming others were to blame, but in an interview with the local Al-Nahar newspaper this week, Wadih Aqel, a lawyer for Tueni, suggested that Kakhia was part of the problem and that if he “remembered the checks he wrote during the election, it would be better.”
“Pierre was a friend, but he lost his [moral] compass,” he added.
This is not the first time a scandal has hit Lebanese basketball.
In 2013, the FLB was suspended by FIBA amid claims of political interference in the national league.
Also that year, the national team was left stranded in Taiwan following a tournament after financial irregularities left them unable to pay for return flights.
Other signs of the money woes for the national sport were evident on Twitter earlier this month, where fans posted screenshots of texts from league club Hekmeh asking for donations. The text read, “with your support, the club continues.”
Khajiran added that the current issues should serve as an “eye-opener” for the sport in Lebanon.
“The national team was once ranked 23rd, now they are ranked 53rd. The officials need to start caring about the reputation of Lebanon on the international stage.”
Kakhia assured The Daily Star that “there is no doubt, the first installment will be paid before the [new] deadline.”
But with missed payments a staple of Lebanese basketball in recent years, thousands of fans are likely to be anxiously awaiting the looming Dec. 1 deadline.