It has been two years and five months since Lebanon last tasted defeat in an international fixture. Cedars coach Miodrag Radulovic has been pulling up trees since his appointment in 2015 and has overseen a remarkable FIFA World Rankings rise from 144 up to their current, record high, position of 79.
A first ever qualification for the Asian Cup was achieved in March and now, after 14 unbeaten games, Radulovic is aiming to take the team a step further than in 2000 when, as hosts, Lebanon exited at the group stage.
The Montenegrin has instilled a spirit that was previously lacking, notably making Lebanon a more steely side away from home. The Asian Cup qualification campaign was characterized by late goals, a reflection of the team’s newfound mental toughness.
“We have a great spirit and this is because I have worked a lot on the psychological side of the game with the players,” Radulovic told Arab News. “I talk a lot with them individually and try to push them to have confidence. You can see this has worked. No-one believed in Lebanon when qualifying started but we won the group.”
Radulovic’s belief in his side has been unfaltering and he was rewarded with five wins and a draw in qualifying, including a memorable 5-0 thrashing of North Korea in Beirut. Malaysia and Hong Kong were also put to the sword.
A focus on young players has been key to the evolution of this team, but while the Montenegrin sees plenty of ability, he believes the lack of facilities in Lebanon is seriously stifling further development.
“We are a new team, a new generation,” Radulovic explained.
“I have worked in Kuwait before and traveled all over the Gulf, but with Lebanon I see so much natural talent. However, they need infrastructure to help this talent progress.
“When I arrived here I was surprised how bad the infrastructure was and it is still very bad here. The federation needs to have its own stadium, its own training camp — because of this, all of our preparation for the Asian Cup in the next few months will be out of Lebanon.
“The recent success has helped motivate many Lebanese people to become more interested in football but still I didn’t see any improvement in facilities. This remains a fundamental problem — Lebanese players are extremely talented and they deserve better so they can improve.”
One of those talented players is Hassan Maatouk who, at just 30, is one of the elder statesmen of Radulovic’s blossoming squad. After six years playing in the UAE for Ajman, Al-Shaab and Fujairah, the forward returned to Lebanon with Beirut’s Nejmeh SC in 2017 and has been prolific in his country’s recent unbeaten run. Lebanon’s captain and talisman scored in five of six Asian Cup qualifiers.
“Hassan Maatouk is a really good player and a very good person,” Radulovic beamed.
“He is really the leader of this generation. I have trained some fantastic players in my career including (fellow Montengrins) Stefan Jovetic, Mirko Vucinic and Stefan Savic.
“Honestly, Maatouk is right at the top level. He has helped the national team so much, he has helped me so much and really he is one of the very best players in the Middle East right now.”
Maatouk has been accompanied by a very capable cast, with an increasing number plying their trade outside of Lebanon. Radulovic believes experience of different football cultures has benefited his players, while he has also shown a great interest in tapping into the vast Lebanese diaspora around the world.
“Players learn a lot from traveling abroad. Then when they come back they talk to each other and share their experiences; this is a great aspect of playing overseas.
“Now we see players at a much higher level. Joan Oumari plays in Japan. I found Hilal El-Helwe in the fourth division of Germany, now he is playing in the top division in Greece. I have on my list more young players. Some of them will move to a better club and better level.
“Our Asian Cup squad is not set in stone; our scouting network is very good and we always look for new players. For example, there are five million Lebanese in Brazil and in Australia too (there is) a big population.
“In November we will travel to Australia to play two friendly games — one with Australia and one with Uzbekistan — I will meet some players there. I also have some players in Mexico and I hope that in September one of them, (former Mexico U23 forward) Jeronimo Amione, will join us.”