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.”