Third time lucky, or so they say. Spanish futsal coach Francisco Araujo is hoping the old saying comes true when he takes his Lebanon side to Uzbekistan later this month for their third AFC Futsal Championship in a row and their tenth in all. The competition has not proved to be a happy one for the Lebanese, who have never advanced beyond the quarter-finals, having gone out at that stage on the last two occasions, at UAE 2012 and then Vietnam 2014.
A former futsal player with Barcelona, Araujo took on the Lebanon job in 2011, and though the last four of the continental finals remains an elusive goal for the Spaniard, he has nevertheless overseen a growth in the popularity of the sport in the Middle Eastern country, as he told FIFA.com: “The national team has been completely transformed, both in terms of the players, the average age and the mindset you need for futsal. We’ve now got a group of players who are devoted to the game and are completely au fait with its tactics. That’s helped the team progress and become one of the best sides on the continent.”
Though interest in the sport has increased in Lebanon since the creation of the men’s and women’s football championships, the national team has yet to make its FIFA Futsal World Cup debut.
Casting his mind back to the 2012 AFC Futsal Championship, where his side were knocked out in the last eight by Thailand, Araujo said: “It was tough to take, not just because we lost but also because of what happened in the match between Kuwait and Australia. We had a lot of problems in a short period of time. We taught the players the tactical basics and they took it all on board but we still missed out on qualification for the World Cup on goal difference, by a single goal.”
Lebanon fell at the same hurdle two years later in Vietnam, when they went down to Uzbekistan, an elimination that Araujo has no complaints about: “You have to remember that modern futsal is pretty new to Lebanon. There weren’t any foreign players or coaches before, and developing the players here has taken time.”
He added: “We had a few injuries to deal with at the last competition. We lost our first-choice goalkeeper Hussein Hamdani and our captain Qassem Qussan and we had to call on a bunch of new players who weren’t familiar with our tactical set-up. Despite it all, we put in a good performance and we only lost because of a few individual errors.”
Hope for the future
The Lebanese will come up against Uzbekistan once again when the 2016 AFC Futsal Championship gets under way in a few days’ time, with his side meeting the competition hosts in Group A. Araujo will be hoping Lebanon can top the section, earn a more favourable draw for the quarter-finals and clinch a place in the last four, the reward for which will be a maiden FIFA Futsal World Cup appearance at Colombia 2016.
The Spaniard sees the group match with Uzbekistan as being every bit as important as their opener against Kyrgyzstan and their third outing, against Saudi Arabia, a side the Lebanese beat 5-2 in the qualifiers.
“All our matches in Group A are as vital as each other,” he remarked. “You have to remember that Kyrgyzstan are a good side and that they often make the quarter-finals. We need to beat them if we’re to have any hope of taking top spot, which is really important if we want to avoid Iran, who are a bogey team for us.”
While 11-a-side Lebanese football has made great strides in the last few years, with the Cedars having reached the final round of the Asian qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the country’s fans are urging the futsal side to make history by securing what would be the nation’s first appearance in a FIFA competition. As far as the 42-year-old coach is concerned, that objective is entirely possible.
“We honestly don’t have much luck, on or off the pitch,” he explained. “Our best players get injured on the day before big games, and fortune seems to desert us when it comes to tournament draws. I hope things turn out differently for us this time and that we can make our dream a reality.
“Since coming in at the end of 2011, I’ve put together a young team that’s picked up experience at a continental level. We can definitely reach our objective and change the image of Lebanese futsal forever.”
Could it be that Araujo and Lebanon’s luck is about to change? All will be revealed in the coming days.