The Cedars: Lebanon's football team is doing more than lifting spirits
In June, 12 of the 40 Asian nations competing in the second round of qualification for the 2022 Qatar World Cup progressed to the final stage.
Lebanon squeezed in as the final qualifier by the narrowest of margins, but the news has been greeted with more excitement in Beirut than in other capitals around the continent.
There are few countries that need their national team to succeed as much as Lebanon does, not just to raise the mood of its people but also to keep the sport functioning at a professional level.
Lebanon is suffering one of the worst economic downturns since the mid-19th century, according to the World Bank.
In the past 18 months, the local currency has lost almost 90% of its value and rampant inflation means that from April 2019 to April 2021 the cost of food and beverages rose 670% according to the UN, which estimated that 1.5 million people in the country of seven million people were living in poverty.
"The situation here is so bad and the qualification brings joy to people… This is the only good news we have had"
There is a lack of fuel, power, medicine, and even governance in Lebanon. The August 2020 Beirut explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history, not only killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, and caused huge physical and financial damage, but symbolised the problems in a country that has also been grappling with Covid-19.
The 'Cedars' light up Lebanon
In this context, the "Cedars", as the Lebanese national team are known, making it to the final round (scheduled for September) is a big deal.
"It is a light amid the darkness in which we are living," Wael Chehayeb of the Lebanese Football Association (LFA) told The New Arab. "The situation here is so bad and the qualification brings joy to people… This is the only good news we have had."
People do not expect Lebanon to finish in the top two in Group A and to advance to the 2022 World Cup or even to take third place and enter a play-in. Lebanon has never been to the World Cup and, ranked 93rd in the world according to FIFA, are the lowest-ranked of their group of Iran, South Korea, UAE, Iraq, and Syria.
"Our group is better than the other group we could have gone into," Chehayeb added. "Many of the teams... We have played against them before, with good results. We are looking forward to the challenge."
While the dream of the World Cup buoys hearts, on the ground, the financial benefits of extending the qualification campaign and playing ten more big games will have tangible benefits for Lebanese football.
Getting to the third round of World Cup qualifications means that the LFA will receive an extra $2.5m from the Asian Football Confederation. This funding has the potential to be a game-changer, especially as local currency is plummeting. For a start, it means that the Lebanese Premier League can function.
"If the national team succeeds, then we get more money," said Fadi Kakhi, head coach of Lebanese Premier League team Akhaa Ahli Aley.
"I want to say thanks to the Lebanese FA. Last season they paid half of the budget for the clubs and they said they will do the same this season, and it will help a lot. The better the national team does, the better it can be for all of us."
The Lebanese Premier League consists of 12 clubs that represent various cities and communities with most scrabbling for funds from television, tickets, and corporate sponsors.
Despite the long-standing financial issues the clubs face and the added complications of Covid-19, the 2020-21 season was completed, albeit behind closed doors, and the new season is set to start in mid-August.
Whatever happens, the current economic situation in football reflects that of the country - and the clubs need help. "Our economic problems are all related to the economic situation and it is affecting us a lot, especially my team," Khaki said.
"The current economic situation in football reflects that of the country - and the clubs need help"
"We have problems bringing fresh money from outside and sponsors have disappeared, and that is why we are one of the last teams to start training for the new season."
Stadiums stood empty last season, due to Covid-19, reducing revenue even further. It is hoped that the gates will reopen next season, but clubs are still feeling the pinch, which is why the prize money from the national team is crucial.
"We will play and keep to the players' contracts but they are very low… The situation is tough but we will do all we can to stay in the division."
Lebanon increasingly depends on the country's diaspora when looking for sporting talent, a policy that has also been followed, with some success, by other teams in the region such as Palestine. Players born in Europe have been called up to represent the country of their mothers, fathers or grandparents, often with decisive results.
During the second round of qualification, two goals from Joan Oumari gave the Cedars a vital 3 - 2 win over Sri Lanka. Born in Berlin, the powerful defender played club football in Germany before heading to Japan where he now plays for FC Tokyo. Other diaspora members include Khaled Mohssen, who was born and plays in Germany, Felix Michel Melki, born in Sweden and playing in Norway, and Denmark-born Bassel Jradi who is now based in Cyprus.
"Some people with Lebanese origins join the national team," said Chehayeb.
"It gives us more options when looking for players as we don't have a big population and some of them have a European football education which is good for us."
The exposure can also be beneficial for the players, especially in the final stages of World Cup qualification. "They can play in big games and if they do well, they move to a big club. We are trying to get scouts and agents to look at the players who play for us."
"Most Lebanese people now live outside Lebanon"
For the Lebanese FA, the better the national team does and is seen to do, the more attractive it becomes for eligible players who could, perhaps, choose to play for other countries, but have the potential to improve the Lebanese standard even more.
"We have so many players abroad, most Lebanese people now live outside Lebanon," said Kahki. "We have to look and find more players as our football level is still low. We need players to push us up, coaches and staff too."
"So far, these players have helped us. We know that finishing above South Korea and Iran is not realistic, but there are things we can achieve, for the good of football in Lebanon but also for the country."
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden