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Heartbroken Lebanese fans once again looking on as AFC Asian Cup knockout stage kicks off

As eight Arab nations continue into the AFC Asian Cup’s round of 16, two have been left wondering what could have been.

Oman’s exit was a surprise. The other was a heartbreakingly familiar occurrence.

Lebanon’s experience at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup can only be described as humiliating, after failing to progress to the round of 16 in the 24-team tournament.

In the final group match, debutants Tajikistan not only fought to take Lebanon’s qualifying slot, but also outplayed them in every sector of the pitch.

The result was a 1-0 Lebanon lead in the 80th minute turned into a 2-1 loss by the 92nd.

The Cedars’ fans will no doubt recall the same sinking feeling experienced after that infamous 2-1 loss to Iran during the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, when two stoppage-time goals robbed Lebanon of a sensational win.

In many ways, the national team’s misery mirrors the current deplorable situation in Lebanon — political division and social distress in a relatively lawless environment — which are ingredients guaranteed to hamper any sporting aspirations and progress.

This tournament was seen as offering Lebanon’s best chance of progressing from the group stages for the first time in their history, and as expected, it ended in another frustrating exit.

In fact, the Lebanese national football team has a longstanding tradition of promising hope, only for their efforts to deliver heartbreak to every single soul attached to the Cedar nation.

Capturing the attention and desire of the Lebanese people, the national team bounced back from an expected defeat by hosts Qatar in the tournament opener to earn a hard-fought, backs-to-the-wall 0-0 draw with China in their second outing.

The heroics of goalkeeper Mostafa Matar, with seven saves, and a goal-line clearance from Khalil Khamis, left Lebanon needing to beat Tajikistan for a chance to qualify automatically as the second-placed team in Group A. Spirits were cautiously optimistic given Lebanon had yet to register a goal.

The statistics alone do not reveal their ineptitude in attack. With an average of five shots on target per match, mostly strikes from outside the box, Lebanon did not make the Qatari or Chinese goalkeepers sweat.

But a new day brought new hope.

All doubts and concerns evaporated when a glorious strike, again from just outside the box, by attacking midfielder Bassel Jradi, looped over the outstretched Tajikistan goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov just two minutes after the break.

There was a euphoric response from players and fans in the Jassim Bin Hamad stadium. Back home, a people who suffered decades of hardship and torment cried and hugged in delight. The Lebanese football team’s first goal in six halves of football had delivered much-needed joy to a demoralized nation, and the prospect of unimagined success.

However, nothing is easy and straightforward if you are Lebanese. A straight and warranted red card for Kassem Al-Zein just nine minutes after the goal reminded the supporters of Lebanon’s past footballing woes.

Miodrag Radulovic’s team were immediately on the back foot, and their defensive sturdiness was tested on several occasions. Twice Tajikistan scored, only for VAR to rescue Lebanon from collapsing.

But as the old French saying goes, “jamais deux sans trois,” third time indeed proved a charm for Tajikistan, with no VAR intervention denying them an equalizer with 10 minutes left of the 90.

A tremendous free-kick grazed over the Lebanese defensive wall and beat the diving Matar. Lebanon’s hopes were firmly demolished in the second of 16 stoppage-time minutes when Nuriddan Khamrokulov slotted home the winner.

Lebanon crashed out, again.

Failure stalks Lebanese football, whether in the AFC Asian Cup or qualifying rounds for the World Cup.

The one constant is the dangling of hope, only for it to be snatched away, a recurring theme for Lebanon as a nation.

The first time Lebanon qualified for the AFC Asian Cup was when they hosted it in 2000. They were obliterated 4-0 by Iran in the opening match and only managed to draw the remaining two games against Iraq and Thailand.

The one upside was that the team battled back in both matches. They were down by two goals to Iraq and trailed 1-0 to Thailand in the second half before rescuing a point in each. The fighting spirit was present even if the Lebanese team still finished bottom of their group.

Their next appearance in the tournament came 19 years later when they recorded their first, and currently only win by thumping North Korea 4-1 in Sharjah. Again, Lebanon trailed 1-0 before equalizing halfway through the first half. It was a tournament much like the 2023 edition would be, where they failed to register a goal in their two previous matches. It remains Lebanon’s only significant win at an international football tournament.

When it comes to World Cup qualifying campaigns, it is the same old trend. Always the scent of hope that quickly turns foul.

That does not mean there has not been progress. There was that almighty near-miss against Iran at Saida Municipal Stadium in November 2021, where a win would have put them on eight points after five matches and in real contention to reach Qatar 2022.

Lebanon took the lead against the run of play in the first half through a close-range goal by Hassan Ali “Soony” Saad. Ivan Hasek’s team then activated their backs-to-the-wall defending mode.

But the collapse came nonetheless. Iran scored two goals in stoppage time to quash any dreams Lebanon had of reaching the World Cup.

From losing 4-0 to Iran in 2000, to almost beating them in 2021 showed that the team had come a long way. But a long road remains  ahead still.

Through a thorough football reeducation and an emphasis on youth development, Lebanon can emerge from the rubble of another failed journey.

There should be a strict guideline that politics and nepotism cannot be the determining factors when constructing a national team.

Meritocracy and ingenuity on both technical and tactical fronts must be the way forward if Lebanon is ever to dream of advancing out of the group stage of the AFC Asian Cup and qualifying for a World Cup.

It is still early enough to dream they will qualify for the 2026 World Cup in the US, Mexico and Canada.

Currently, they have played twice and, in true Lebanese tradition, drawn twice against Bangladesh and Palestine in a group which also includes Australia.

The top two of each group will progress to the third round of qualifying, and another Lebanese failure to do so will once again serve as a reminder of the current deplorable political and social situation in the country.

One remarkable characteristic the Lebanese possess is that they will gladly invite hope even if all indications are that the outcome will turn sour. Probably in stoppage time.

Some might call it gullibility, but it is nothing of the sort. It is an unshakeable love for their nation, and no amount of heartbreak, on or off the pitch, will ever change that.

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