Lebanon began Group B in Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ as the rank outsiders. They were 160th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and had Korea Republic, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates for company.
And though the Lebanese campaign began in predictable fashion, in the form of a 6-0 defeat by the Taeguk Warriors in Goyang, they have since proved the revelations of the Asian preliminaries. In their next three matches, indeed, Theo Bucker’s men beat United Arab Emirates 3-1 at home, drew with Kuwait in Beirut and then beat the same team 1-0 away.
But if the latter result was labelled an “outstanding” one by their German coach, Lebanon outranked it yesterday with a 2-1 reverse of a Korea Republic side positioned third in Asia and 31st overall on the global ladder at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium.
Ali Al Saadi and Abbas Ali Atwi, both of whom have never played club football outside their homeland, scored the Cedars’ goals as a team comprising just three foreign-based players - from Malaysia’s Selangor, Australian regional outfit Bankstown City Lions and Shandong Luneng in China PR - overcame one including employees of Hamburg, Wolfsburg, Celtic and Sunderland.
There were euphoric scenes at the final whistle as the result propelled Lebanon level on points with section leaders Korea Republic, with Kuwait two points back in third and United Arab Emirates yet to get off the mark, ahead of the final set of matches. Afterwards, Bucker revealed that his team’s pre-match target, given the towering size of the hurdle, was just a point.
“We were not even aiming to win, we are not dreamers,” admitted the 63-year-old, who assumed the reins in August. “But during the game we saw that we could compete. The key was our attitude. I'm extremely happy that we managed to get the three points, and I can't find the words to describe my feelings at the moment.
“I'm thinking of the rapid success we have had in such a short time, and that has only been possible because of the great co-operation between the players, the federation and the technical staff. When we went to Seoul, we were not prepared. It was right after Ramadan, which means no food, no sleep. They were two classes better than us. It is a real compliment to us that we have been able to catch up in two months."
Lebanon now require just a point from their final third-phase game to advance, and even if they lose away to the out-of-sorts United Arab Emirates, they would still go through provided Kuwait fail to pull off what would be a shock win in Korea Republic. Bucker is nevertheless aware that nothing can be taken for granted.
"There are no guarantees in football,” he warned. “We can only guarantee that we will go about our job in a professional manner. We are in good form, but don’t write off the Emirates.”
Roda Antar, who has captained Lebanon since 2004, was one of his country’s stand-out performers against the South Koreans, though the midfielder’s first-half booking means he will miss the encounter with United Arab Emirates.
“We deserved the victory today because we produced a big performance,” said the 31-year-old. “Our players are heroes. We are now close to reaching the final round. I’ll be unable to play in the last match, but I'm confident that my team-mates will manage without me. Hopefully we’ll manage a big achievement and advance to the final round.”
Bucker, who has a Lebanese wife and has lived in the country for several years, added: "I'm very happy for the Lebanese people. Football is an almighty power – it can bring freedom to a country.”