Four months ago, if you had asked a Lebanese fan to predict how the national team would fare in the third round of Asian Zone qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, even the most optimistic would surely have guessed at no higher than a third-place finish in Group B.
This gloomy prognosis was not without good reason. In April 2011 Lebanon sunk to 178th spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and it seemed impossible that they would make it to the next FIFA World Cup. However, new Lebanon coach Theo Bucker had other ideas. As he told FIFA.com a few days after his appointment in August: “There’s no such thing as impossible in football and we have to remain optimistic if we want to get results.”
The 63-year-old manager seemed destined to prove himself right. A 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Korea Republic in Bucker’s first Group B match was followed by an impressive 3-1 defeat of United Arab Emirates in Beirut, a shock result that led to the resignation of UAE’s Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec and propelled Lebanon 14 places up the rankings to 146, their highest position of the year.
A flash in the pan?
Even so, many observers still considered Lebanon’s victory in Beirut to have been a flash in the pan. And with their next two third-round group matches against 2010 Gulf Cup winners Kuwait and the mighty South Koreans - the favourites to qualify for the next phase - their chances of putting together a string of good results looked poor.
Bucker’s men had other ideas. A draw against Kuwait in Beirut was followed by a surprise 1-0 victory over their Arab opponents in the return, though their finest hour was a 2-1 defeat of the Korea Republic side that had humiliated them in September.
In the November rankings Lebanon have jumped an unprecedented 35 places to 111th in the table, their highest placing since January 2007, when they were 110th in the world. This was still some way off their record high of 85th, achieved in December 1998, but the vast improvement the side has shown under Bucker suggests there is more to come.
“I’ve already said this before, but Lebanese football is not as most people imagine it,” said the German, when asked by FIFA.com to comment on his side’s latest leap. “There are a lot of outstanding players and we have to work with a new system to bring this talent out.
“It’s no surprise that we are higher placed, but to rise 49 places in such a short time is a bit unexpected,” continued the former coach of Egyptian giants Zamalek. “Our job now is to hold onto that position. That’s our biggest challenge.”
The Bucker cure
Lebanon’s recent improvement is the stuff legends are made of, and when combined with Lebanese rumours that the bracelets Bucker wears, a gift from a Brazilian friend, have magical powers, it explains why some fans see supernatural forces at work.
“They’re just a present from a friend,” laughed Bucker. “My real secret is my strategy; the way I work in football. It allows me to help the national side develop, with the support from the Lebanese Football Association.”
“I have worked in nine different countries in my career,” Bucker said as the conversation concluded. “My success with the Lebanese national side is my most important achievement to date, but it’s down to nothing more than having a plan for the team I’m coaching: that’s the secret of my success.”
Enchanted Brazilian bracelets or just good planning, there can be no denying Bucker's impact on Lebanon’s meteoric ascent up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.