Football soon to return to Lebanon amid COVID-19, economic woes

Reeling from a welter of problems, Lebanon hopes to get a lift from the gloom — and cheer many people up — with football. (Photo courtesy: Adnan Hajj Ali)
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Updated 02 September 2020

Football soon to return to Lebanon amid COVID-19, economic woes

  • Lebanon FA’s marketing committee chair: In these times, football may not be a priority but it is still a need

LONDON: It is unlikely that anywhere in the world will look back on 2020 with fondness, but Lebanon has more reason than most to be counting the days until the year ends. 

Not only has the country been dealing with the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) but the blast that hit Beirut in August not only devastated the capital, but added to severe economic woes and the collapse of the country’s currency.

At least football should return soon

The Lebanese national team ended last year by taking eight points from four 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Wins over Sri Lanka and Turkmenistan in October were followed by draws against South Korea and North Korea, to leave the Cedars just a point behind Turkmenistan in first with just three games remaining. The dream of a place in the next and final round was alive.

Then came COVID-19, and no more games were played. Yet even before the pandemic, there were issues. Political and economic problems caused the suspension of the 2019-20 league season in January.

“We started to be affected last year and the league stopped,” Wael Akram Chehayeb, chairman of the Lebanon FA’s marketing committee, told Arab News. “We have tried all efforts to get back to football but it didn’t happen and then we were preparing to return when COVID-19 came in February, and football stopped all over the world.”

There was a plan to restart in August, before a massive explosion ripped through the capital, killing at least 190 people, injuring thousands of others, leaving many more homeless and causing an estimated $15 billion worth of damage.

“This huge thing happened in Beirut which is devastating for all of us,” added Chehayeb. “It breaks your heart to see what happened and you can’t imagine it. The economic situation is really bad. We hope a government will be formed and we are hoping that things will get better but even with all that, we still can’t forget that COVID-19 is still around.”

The beautiful game can give the nation hope.  “In these times, football may not be a priority but it is still a need. People need to be cheered up. We follow the English Premier League and leagues from all over, and we wait for that just to get out of our news.  Football is No. 1 here and the only thing that can cheer many people up.”

If there are no more setbacks then the 2020-21 season will kick off in early October with the kind of COVID-19 protocols that have become common around the world, such as no fans in stadiums. There are more issues in Lebanon, however. The local currency has lost over 80 percent of its value in the past 12 months. It means that there will be few, if any, foreign players. Here too, officials are trying to pick out the positives.

“Lebanese players will have a chance to rise, especially the younger ones. There can only be five players above 30 and the under-20s and under-23s must have minutes.”

Unsurprisingly, Lebanese internationals are looking elsewhere, with the likes of winger Rabih Ataya loaned to Malaysian club UiTM earlier this year. “Some players have gone to Kuwait, Malaysia and elsewhere due to the bad economic situation. Our life changed dramatically with the collapse of the pound, the players are getting good deals overseas and they will go anywhere. Even if the league is not great, they want to get out of here but this gives a chance for other young talent.”

There has been some financial assistance given but more is needed. “FIFA helped all countries for COVID-19 and we are part of that,” Chehayeb said. “All the clubs and federations got money in US dollars, which is very helpful for us now and we also got money for women’s football which is now important. We hope to get something after the blast as we are struggling for sponsors as who is going to sponsor at the moment?”

Getting to the final stage of World Cup qualification would help even if, in the circumstances, it would be a superhuman achievement. 

If Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka can be defeated once again then Lebanon will travel to South Korea with a real chance of finishing second, with a potential place in the next stage.

“We are hoping to start the league on the second of next month. The national team has already started preparation for World Cup qualification. All football is trying to adapt and we are trying to do the same. All we can say is ‘inshallah’. We know there is a long way to go.”

Injured Serena withdraws from French Open; Nadal cruises

Updated 01 October 2020

Injured Serena withdraws from French Open; Nadal cruises

  • The 39-year-old Williams, a three-time winner at Roland Garros, pulled out ahead of her second round match

PARIS: Serena Williams suffered another blow in her bid for a 24th Grand Slam title as the American withdrew from the French Open on Wednesday with an Achilles injury, while 12-time champion Rafael Nadal raced into the third round.

The 39-year-old Williams, a three-time winner at Roland Garros, pulled out ahead of her second round match against Tsvetana Pironkova citing the injury that prompted her to skip the Rome tuneup event.

“The Achilles didn't have enough time to heal after the US Open,” said Williams, who admitted last week she was not fully fit after her run to the semifinals in New York.

“I'm struggling to walk, so that's kind of a telltale sign that I should try to recover.”

The injury likely means she will miss the rest of 2020, leaving the Australian Open in 2021 as her next chance to equal Margaret Court's all-time majors record.

Nadal looked in ominous form as he stepped up his pursuit of Roger Federer's 20 major titles with a crushing win over 236th-ranked American Mackenzie McDonald.

The Spaniard batted aside McDonald 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 in exactly 100 minutes and will meet Japan's Kei Nishikori or Stefano Travaglia of Italy for a spot in the last 16.

“The aim was to play as well as possible. I'm very happy. I have another difficult match next,” said Nadal. The 34-year-old needs one more major to pull level with long-time rival Federer and owns an astonishing 95-2 record in Paris going back to his triumph on debut in 2005.

US Open champion Dominic Thiem swept into the third round with a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (8/6) victory over American qualifier Jack Sock, saving three set points to close out the match.

The Austrian third seed will play Norway's Casper Ruud, seeded 28th, or American Tommy Paul for a place in the last 16.

“I'm very happy with my game in the first two rounds. It was not an easy draw at all and I'm very happy not to drop a set,” said Thiem, who defeated 2014 US Open winner Marin Cilic in round one.

Dutch fifth seed Kiki Bertens had to be taken off court in a wheelchair after a fiery win over former finalist Sara Errani.

Bertens triumphed 7-6 (7/5), 3-6, 9-7 in a three-hour 11-minute clash which left her in cramps and Italian Errani screaming an obscenity as she left the court.

"After one hour, she's injured but then she's running around like never before," said Errani.

"She leaves the court in a chair and now she's in the locker room and eating in the restaurant, perfect. She exaggerated."

Bertens is due to meet Katerina Siniakova next while Elina Svitolina overcame Mexican qualifier Renata Zarazua 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

The Ukrainian third seed is coming off a title at Strasbourg last week and will next play Russian 27th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, but was briefly taken aback by a sonic boom.

Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open winner, followed up his demolition of Andy Murray with a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 defeat of Germany's Dominik Koepfer.

Sebastian Korda, the son of 1992 Roland Garros runner-up and 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, also progressed after a four-sets victory over fellow American John Isner.