As Theo Buecker prepares an almost entirely new team for the last match of Lebanon's World Cup qualifying campaign, he struggles with memories of a former squad that had given him reason to believe that they'd all create history.
“If our boys had not sold the two matches against Qatar, we'd reach Brazil,” Buecker said. “We'd go to the World Cup next year.”
That's not going to happen this time.
The discovery in February that 24 players - including six involved in World Cup qualifying matches - had been implicated in a match-fixing scandal has shocked Lebanon.
Under German Buecker's leadership Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, had managed to beat stronger, much better-resourced teams including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in the past year. And that followed wins over even stronger Asian powers like South Korea and Iran in the previous qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup.
The national team was helping to unite a population slowly trying to heal divisions after 15 years of sectarian war that left the place in ruins when it ended in 1990.
Then it all went wrong in the two qualifying matches against Qatar.
Lebanon lost the home and away games with their opponents scoring one goal in each match, angering their fans and frustrating Buecker.
“If you see how we lost, it's just ridiculous,” Buecker told The Associated Press in an interview. “One player, how many times he was trying to be successful with the right pass to the opponents' center forward, to put him in a position where it was easy for him to score. Unbelievable!”
Buecker said he had no idea at the time that players - all of whom were close with the coach - had been playing to fix the matches, not win them.
A few weeks before Buecker's side lost to Qatar 1-0 in Doha in November, Lebanon's Football Association launched an investigation into allegations of match-fixing in international and continental games. A three-member committee investigated players, officials and referees and the outcome was startling: some players took money from gambling syndicates and intentionally lost games.
The LFA banned international players Ramez Dayoub and Mahmoud al-Ali and club official Fadi Fneish for life. The investigation was led by the general secretary of the West Asian Football Federation, Fadi Zreiqat. Another 22 players were also sanctioned for their part in match-fixing in games involving Lebanese clubs in Asian League matches.
Midfielder Dayoub has played for Selangor in Malaysia, and striker al-Ali has played for Persiba Balikpapan in Indonesia. Fneish is an official with Beirut-based Al Ahed club who also served as a translator for Lebanon's national team.
When Beucker returned to Beirut from the Qatari capital after one match, his wife told him that the fans, who had rallied behind the national team in a rare show of unity, were angry because they were convinced Dayoub sold the match.
“We had a fight and I said it was not true,” he said. “But I did watch the match again, and you can see clearly, Ramiz is really focused, intently looking, looking, looking for the player of the other side and then passing the ball to him,” Buecker said.
He said there were some on the team who had their suspicions at the time, but “nobody in the right mind assumed it was deliberate bad behavior,” Buecker said.
“Ramiz played a couple of passes into our defense, to our opponents, and we thought, is the guy blind? What is he doing?” the coach recalled. He then reviewed other matches, including Lebanon's home match against Qatar last June.
“We were the dominating team, we were controlling the match, we had good possession of the ball but in a very funny way, in front of the goal we look like we've all broken our legs,” Buecker said. “I just could not believe it.”
Buecker went on to watch all the World Cup qualifying matches, including the two pre-qualifiers Lebanon played against Bangladesh in July 2011.
“Even in Asia, Lebanon is not a top team, but with all due respect, it's nothing but a clean victory that is expected against Bangladesh,” Buecker said. Lebanon won the home match 4-0 in November 2011, but five days later lost 2-0 in Dhaka.
“I could not believe it,” Buecker said. But after watching that match again, he said “there was my close friend Mahmoud Ali, who in a 'technically brilliant' way was able to be nine times in front of (the opponents') empty goal and managed to miss the goal.”
Last month FIFA extended the life bans for the two players and the official worldwide. Both players denied the allegations and told the investigators they were not involved in match-fixing.
The Asian Football Confederation said it reviewed a summary of the report from the investigation in Lebanon, but found no evidence that Dayoub played a role in helping Qatar beat Lebanon in the World Cup qualifiers.
Buecker, who was recruited by the LFA in 2011 to help Lebanon qualify for the 2014 World Cup, had to put a whole new team together for the remaining qualifiers. In a match against South Korea June 4, the German coach fielded only two players from the pre-scandal team. The match in Beirut ended 1-1 after the guests equalized deep into injury time.
With five points, Lebanon is at the bottom of Group A before Buecker's side travels to Tehran to play its last World Cup qualifier against Iran June 11.
“We are now a clean team and everyone is clear that match-fixing people have nothing to do with football,” Buecker said. His contract with the national team is due to end after the Iran match. He said he is not sure whether he will remain Lebanon's coach, but when he talks about his plan for the team's future, he doesn't sound like somebody ready to abandon his adopted country's national team any time soon.
In addition to educating Lebanon's talented youth in football, Buecker said he'd like to see more support for the national team from the clubs that are mostly owned by the country's sect-based political parties or their patrons. He'd like to see “less religion and politics” in football, better training conditions for the national team, including at least one grass training field in the country, where is the only fully licensed coach.
There is no professional football in Lebanon and an average monthly salary paid to the players by the clubs is up to $1,500 dollars, including the $500 dollar bonus for the national team players, Buecker said. A handful of top players, including Dayoub and al-Ali until their ban, have earned up to $4,000 dollars a month.
Better salaries alone will not make aspiring Lebanese players more professional, Buecker said, adding that they need to invest more educating coaches that could produce better players.
“They think you have to be paid millions to be a professional football player,” Buecker said. “I keep telling my boys, particularly these young ones who came to the national team recently and are a bit scared by what happened, 'You are earning money by playing football. No matter how small the salary is, you are a professional football player.'”
Lebanon to end doomed World Cup campaign ‘clean team’