Ten years after leading Lebanon during the qualifiers for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea /Japan™, German coach Theo Bucker is back at the country’s helm and hoping for better luck in the Preliminary Competition for Brazil 2014. However, if he is to advance his side to the next phase, Bucker will need to draw on all his experience to overcome formidable Group B opponents Korea Republic, not to mention the threat posed by Kuwait and United Arab Emirates.
Expectations that Lebanon will book one of the two berths for the final round of Asian qualifiers are low, but Bucker assures FIFA.com that his charges will be no pushovers in the battle for points.
That the 63-year-old former Zamalek coach should choose to work with a low-ranked side like Lebanon may seem strange, but, as Bucker explained, it is his love for Lebanese football that led him to return to the job: “It upsets me when no one gives Lebanese football its due, especially considering the huge talent we have here. I’m trying to create a positive change in the game in Lebanon, getting the building blocks of success in place for a brighter future.”
“I’m half-Lebanese at this stage,” said Bucker, who is married to a Lebanese national and lived in Beirut for many years. “I really love Lebanese football but the situation in the country has set the game back a bit.”
That said he has no doubts that the game has come on since he first took the job of national coach in 2001. “The players are a lot more talented than before, thanks to the football academies that bring up-and-coming players into contact with the world game. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and this passion has to be channelled in the right direction. The football association here has to work hand in hand with supporters to bring the game on and make it something to be enjoyed by everybody,” he said.
Despite his positivity, Bucker remains realistic about his side’s chances of progressing at the Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, describing them as tough, but not impossible.
“Any group would have been difficult for us,” he explained. “The qualifiers are a chance for us to make changes and take a positive step towards a better future. We’re certainly not guaranteed to qualify, but we mustn’t close the door to any opportunity that comes our way.”
Bucker believes that hope and pragmatism can go hand in hand, saying: “If we really want to change Lebanese football for the better we have to focus on the immediate future and get good results. That’s not to say we won’t give everything we’ve got and more in the Asian qualifiers.”
And he was equally level-headed in assessing his side’s opponents in the third round of qualifiers. “Korea Republic are Korea Republic, and Kuwait and the UAE are young sides that have been doing very well recently. For all that, there’s no such thing as impossible in football, and we remain optimistic we can do well ourselves.”
Lebanon’s first Group B match-up will be an away fixture against Korea Republic on 2 September. And while a win would be tough ask, Bucker believes that Lebanon have what it takes to go into the return game with points to their name.
“There’s no belief in the strength and skill of the Lebanese game; we have to change people’s perceptions of that and restore the players’ faith in themselves. We must go into this game confident that we can put on a great performance and come away with a result,” the coach said.
As if coaching the national side were not enough, Bucker has to juggle international commitments with his other job as coach to Lebanese champions Al Ahed as they seek to regain the league title and compete in the 2012 AFC Cup. Yet he remains unfazed, claiming that his love for football will see him through.
“It’s only possible to coach Lebanon and Al Ahed at the same time if the coach is absolutely crazy about football,” he laughed. “For me, coaching isn’t a job; it’s an opportunity to enjoy the game. How can I complain?”
As our interview came to a close, Bucker expressed his belief that good performances by Lebanon’s club sides can help boost the reputation of the country’s football: “Our first goal is to repeat Al Ahed’s league success from last season, then to make our mark at the Asian Cup, where we’ll look to showcase Lebanese talent and give a good account of the game in the country.”