Saturday, September 01, 2012

AFC WIBD Round 4: Stand Still and Conquer

We're back to the "Well-I'll-Be-Darned" awards, recognizing unlikely teams who still have a shot at qualifying for the World Cup Finals in Brazil.

We'll start with the team closest to qualification...the mighty Cedars of Lebanon the first team to ever win a regional WIBD Award two rounds running!

Yes, Lebanon moved on despite being the lowest ranked qualifier for the AFC's 3rd Round. This was a team that wasn't supposed to beat Bangladesh in Round 2. But they topped the Tigers and moved on to face the UAE, Kuwait and South Korea. None of whom they'd beaten in a World Cup competition over the last 20 years earning our praise in the process.

As many predicted, Lebanon suffered an early smack down at the hands of South Korea. But then beat the UAE at home, drew with Kuwait, beat Kuwait IN Kuwait City and pulled the biggest stunner of all: topping Asian giant South Korea 2-1 in Beirut to move on to the next round of the competition.

Despite my laziness and lackadaisical/nonexistent posting, Lebanon has continued on in the competition battling Korea (again), rising power Uzbekistan, fading power Iran, and embattled future cup hosts Qatar.

An early loss in Beirut to Qatar put the Trees on the ropes, and while they salvaged a point against the Uzbeks, another loss in South Korea have left them in dire need of as many points as possible, as quickly as possible.

Still, we remain optimistic that Lebanon can do just that. Start with the fact that the rest of the world has started to take notice. The UN used the symbol of a football team bringing unity to a war torn country as the basis for a unifying tv show. Even the BBC covered their rise to prominence. The Australian Socceroo's are a little worried ahead of an upcoming friendly match, and while Captain Roda Antar will be unavailable due to injury, the rest of the first squad should be available for the critical upcoming matches at home against Iran and in Qatar.

NOT Coach Bucker
Coach Theo Bucker (not revenge of the Nerds star: Booger) remains a focal point for the team. The players love him, even if the fans are dubious of his goalie choices, preferring local veteran Ziad Al-Samad, to Swedish based 23 year old novice Abbas Hassan. A summer time struggle to qualify for the regional Arab Cup increased the pressure on Bucker.

Still Bucker's got a vision to make the Cedars not just a success this year, but a constant presence in Asia's upper echelon, by mirroring the Japanese model of developing great local coaches and ensuring long term growth.
Nader Matar, a stylish young man
in need of a nickname
That effort will likely be helped by the rise of young international talents from the Lebanese diaspora. In addition to Hassan playing in Sweden other young talents like 22 year old Ahmad Zreik (in Greece) and Nader Matar (in Spain) promise to serve up balls to the prodigious young talent Hasaan Matoouk. {But seriously guys we need to come up with some nicknames, how about Nader "To"Matar? Huh? A little vegetable punning?)

It's been great to have a team not just to cheer for but to cheer for as they actually excel! We Montanan Soccer Hooligans will continue to rally as much support as we can for Lebanon. Fight on you mighty Cedars! Stand still and conquer!

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