Here is a not-so-small review of the recent game. To skip to the solitary video and the many pictures, skip to the bottom of this post. If you are in the mood to read, then carry on.
As most of you know by now, the Lebanese national team played a World Cup qualifier yesterday afternoon (Wednesday 29 February 2012) vs. the UAE in Abu Dhabi. The game was the last in the qualifying round in the group. The UAE were out of contention after losing all their previous games, while Lebanon, South Korea and Kuwait were vying for he top 2 spots in the group to qualify.
A draw for Lebanon would have seen them qualify to the fourth and final round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers, while a defeat would mean that their destiny is in the hands of South Korea (Who needed a positive result in their own game versus Kuwait to guarantee they make it through themselves). It’s been an up and down journey for the co-hosts and semi-finalists of the 2002 World Cup (And by far the most successful Asian nation on the world stage, but not on the continental stage). To add to the sense of intrigue, the top scorer of the World Cup qualifiers is Korean Park Chu-Young, a player Arsenal pursued and overpaid for to only keep him on the bench at the Emirates Stadium. He has only featured in a handful of games, causing rage and bafflement back in Korea.
Going back to the UAE, the game was scheduled at 4pm local time, which was relatively early but perhaps understandable since the game in South Korea was held simultaneously 5 or 6 hours ahead of us. Went to Abu Dhabi with some old and new Lebanese friends, lots of banter on the road (There were 3 or 4 social media addicts in the car and a person who was having the time of his life taking the piss out of our fascination with our mobile phone screens). Stopped at a petrol station en route to the capital and there were at least 50 Lebanese fans in there who stopped by for snacks and drinks.
Got to the stadium a full one hour before kick-off, there were hundreds of fans standing outside the stadium waiting to enter. It was a unique atmosphere; there was a sense of unity and expectation in the air. After some waiting we got inside the ground. This was no normal football game, this was the biggest game in the country’s history and there was a lot at stake. By the time we got to our seats, situated right behind one of the goals (and thankfully shadowed from the sun on a relatively warm afternoon) there were around two to three thousand fans already in the stadium.
Lots of chanting (respectful, thankfully) and lots of ‘hi habeebi keefak shou akhbaraks?’ heard everywhere and some fans managed to somehow sneak in drums and even a speaker, creating a small Lebanese carnival and by kick-off half of the stadium was awash with white and red colors. Sadly the other half of the stadium was reserved for the “home” team was practically empty. 15 minutes prior to kick-off and the only locals in sight were some of the police stewards, the FA officials and the UAE’s footballers themselves.
Kick-off at 4pm, by this time the “away” end (Just under half the stadium) was full and had what I would estimate around six thousand Lebanese fans who were in fine voice throughout. The first half was entertaining, the UAE squandered the lead twice to go into the break level at 2-2, a score line which would have been different had the Lebanese national team (NT) had a more capable goalkeeper between the sticks. The first strike was a routine free-kick/cross which he somehow fumbled into his own net in comical fashion.
The game was tense and there were some mistimed tackles (One of which led to an early substitution if memory serves me right of a Lebanese midfielder who limped off the pitch). Lebanon rebounded with a well-taken strike via a lethal counter attack. UAE went ahead again before the end of the opening half, the defence left much to be desired there but Lebanon maintained parity going into the break with another excellent strike but still looked suspect in defence. The UAE’s young players had nothing to lose as they were already eliminated so it was an opportunity for them to play without fear and to let things flow, and flow they did in the second period.
The second half started and the UAE scored two strikes both of which the goalie is again partially to blame, one was a fierce free-kick which evaded the wall and went past the keeper’s near post. Debatable but in my opinion he was very slow to react and it could have been avoided. 3-2 and at this stage some fans who were fortunate to have some network coverage shouted that South Korea took the lead vs. Kuwait to cheers of the Lebanese fans.
The cheers muted soon after with another Emirati goal and another mistake from the keeper. A shot from the edge of the box somehow made it through a crowded penalty area and under the arm of the goalie. 4-2 and utter silence engulfed the away end. There were more home fans by this time (Around 200). South Korea went 2-0 up in their game vs. Kuwait meaning that Lebanon are still likely to go through, unless an unlikely Kuwaiti comeback takes place.
The good news obviously filtered to the players on the pitch, with the action slowing down to almost pedestrian pace with the earlier mentioned tackles almost nonexistent. Lebanese fans started leaving the ground quietly, making one wonder if they were aware of the fact that they could still qualify to the second round (This is assuming that they do not have access to a live score feed of the other game which was in Lebanon’s favor). It was a bit fickle and disrespectful in my opinion to a crop of young players that have performed beyond anyone’s expectations so far in qualifiers.
By full-time around one-third of the Lebanese fans had left the ground but there were more than enough fans still at the stadium to cheer the players after the final whistle. This was history in the making for a nation that has struggled for decades with political and economic unrest, in addition to sectarian clashes. The national team has unified the country, albeit temporarily.
More stern tests lie ahead. I do not mean to take anything away from the Lebanese team, but to keep things in perspective, the UAE team has been quite awful in the campaign, Kuwait have been pushovers for quite a while and South Korea were not at playing to their expected high standards. Some people at the ground and online posted messages of “shukran Korea” after the game (Thanking Korea for the favor), but fans should remember that the Lebanese national team wouldn’t be where it is now if it wasn’t for the culmination of results that preceded this one.
The draw for the next round will be held next week on the 9th (of March). Lebanon will be joining 4 other Arab nations in the final round (Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Oman). Iran, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Uzbekistan complete the draw. For more details on the draw, check Figo29’s blog. I really hope I’ll be able to attend some more qualifying games, especially for the Arab teams at home.