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How, and why, a country sold their spot at the World Cup

Lebanon Squad

Sex, Money & a Bad Economy, Ilija Trojanovic examines the real reason behind Lebanon’s match-fixing scandal

UPDATE: This article was recognised by A Football Report in their list of Best in Football Writing for 2014 alongside some reputed writers/publications in the ‘Storytelling’ category. Check out all the best football articles of 2014 here.

—  PART I  —

“He’s crying, He’s crying! Because he’s scored! This is a wise man! He knows how much this goal means for Lebanon!”

These were the histrionic words of a Lebanese commentator reacting to Mahmoud El-Ali’s equalizer for Lebanon against the UAE in a World Cup qualifying match almost two years ago where the Cedars ended up losing 4-2.

It was by all means a beautiful goal as the Lebanese striker nonchalantly controlled the ball with he head, squeezed past two defenders, and coolly released the ball to beat the UAE goalkeeper…but his immediate reaction after scoring was nothing short of weird. Instead of celebrating, Ali was on the floor slapping the grass with his right hand suffering a mysterious injury and was soon after substituted. I remember watching the match. I was with many Lebanese friends who had lived in the UAE their entire lives, there were mixed emotions and divided loyalties in the room, but deep down everyone wanted Lebanon to do well and make it to the World Cup. For once, every single Lebanese wanted to wave their own flag during the World Cup instead of Brazil’s, Germany’s, or Italy’s…to name but a few.

Lebanon Squad

In the heat of the moment however, with more Lebanese fans cheering on their country in the Al-Nahyan stadium in Abu Dhabi, Mahmoud El-Ali was actually not a very intelligent man; he forgot he was fixing the match. The last time I saw Ali he was sitting with the president of his former club, Al-Ahed, at their training complex in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Sipping coffee and puffing on a cigarette, Ali didn’t look too bothered that the Lebanese Football Federation had banned him for life just a few months  before. His former teammates were training and everyone was excited by the new towering Czech striker on a trial with the club, but Ali didn’t seem minutely envious of the man who would be taking his position in the team. Neither was he stressed about the $15,000 fine he was slapped with; his match-fixing earnings must be a multiplicity of that figure.

Football is a team sport though, and Ali was not acting alone. In total, 24 players were indicted, with 22 of them getting one- to three-year bans. Malaysian-based midfielder Ramez Dayoub and Ali were given the hardest punishment as the pair were handed lifetime bans. The match-fixing didn’t only include matches for the national side, but also encompassed games in the domestic league as well as their clubs’ matches in AFC competitions. Virtually, the entire team was in on it.

Lebanon may have lost that match against the UAE where El-Ali bizarrely needed to be taken off, but it still wasn’t out in the open that matches were being fixed. Fans flooded the Rafic Hariri airport in Beirut waving flags and chanting songs of praise for the returning athletes, who despite the loss accomplished a milestone by making it to the second and final round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers.

It was in that qualifying phase against a lackluster Qatari side that flags were raised. Lebanon’s opponents in that game won the match 1-0, but the only goal was scored due to a horrendous back pass — or arguably a wonderful assist — by Ramez Dayoub. After the match an investigation was underway, with Theo Bucker, Lebanon’s German coach at the time, saying “we were showing some action and then suddenly a (Qatar) player has the ball in a one-on-one situation and you get the feeling that something is wrong.

With more than two-thirds of the team facing bans that barred them from playing in the final round of qualifiers, a young and inexperienced team mixed with older players in their mid 30s was unable to compete with the likes of South Korea and Iran, both of whom booked their tickets to Brazil at Lebanon’s expense.

Notable exclusions from the well worked gyp were Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad; it was evident that they played no part in the wrongdoing. Former teammates at Bundesliga side Freiburg, both of the foreign-based players didn’t need any lucrative financial incentive to throw away games. They were truly giving their all to take Lebanon to the World Cup finals for the very first time. I once saw Mohammad at the Radisson SAS Hotel in Beirut complaining to coach Theo Bucker that his meal was not actually cooked the right way. He told Bucker that this was the national team and the players’ diet is very important for success on the pitch. With both Mohammad and Bucker once Bundesliga players, the gaffer agreed with his vice-captain and gave the hotel manager a good scolding.

When the skipper found out about his teammates doing the exact opposite of what he was trying to do, he was furious. Now plying his trade in China, Antar told them “I didn’t travel all this way for us to be put up for sale by you.


 

—  PART II  —

But it didn’t stop there. Not only were Lebanese players involved in mischief, but so were their referees.

In a separate incident, referees Ali Sabbagh and his assistants Ali Eid and Abdallah Taleb were busted in Singapore for attempting to fix an AFC Cup match in 2012. This time it wasn’t for money, it was for sex.

In the most likely of scenarios, the three refs were making the most of their trip to Singapore to officiate an AFC Cup tie between Singapore’s Tampines Rovers and India’s East Bengal by going to a nightclub the night before, which is where they saw old pal Eric Ding Si Yang. The notorious Singaporean match-fixer more or less told the three referees they can choose which ever females at the club they desired…if they tilted the match’s result in his favor. They did, and now they’re all punished.

Sabbagh and his team got caught while doing the odd job for sexual returns, but they had also worked for Yang in the past, for money. Sabbagh first met Yang in Beirut in 2012 when Yang went under the alias James Zen, and the two worked on many deals together, with Sabbagh testifying that “Ding offered him $10,000 and ‘specifically wanted three goals in a September 2012 match in Kuwait between Kuwait SC and Jordan-based Al-Wehdat SC.” The full time score was 0-0, and this did not sit well with Yang, who Sabbagh says called him “not a man but a child.”

The fuming Yang then told Sabbagh “now my partners will be angry. I will see if I give you a second chance,” clearly, he did, and the two continued working together, for sex and money. All the men are currently behind bars in Singapore.


 

—  PART III  —

Ziad el-Samad, Lebanon’s national team goalkeeper who is an advocate against match-fixing after being approached to drop games on more than one occasion, stands alongside Antar and Mohammed as a key member of the Lebanese team who didn’t set up matches. But in an interview with Samad several years back, he highlighted to me the difficulties of being a Lebanese footballer, and sounded empathetic towards his soon to be charlatan colleagues, as if he already knew about what they were planning on doing.

Samad told me it was impossible to make a living in Lebanon while only playing football. He himself works at a bank, which is why he’s able to make a living. Still, even if you were a banker alone in Beirut, your wages wouldn’t cut it. In a country where the minimum wage is around $400, and the monthly wage average just above a thousand dollars, most of the population are scheming. It comes as no surprise that Lebanon was given a 28 rating by Transparency International, whose international index rates the level of corruption in countries with zero being most corrupt and 100 the least.

It would be criminal to defend the actions of the football players who threw away Lebanon’s World Cup aspirations after going so far, but it would be foolish not to bring into the equation the socio-economic ramifications that come with being employed in Lebanon. Having lived there for ten years myself, it’s easy to bear witness to the dire employment hurdles people must go through to get a job, but far worse is the prospect of getting a job and sustaining oneself financially. With such a floundering economic establishment, and with additional barriers to entry such as nepotism and sectarianism, it’s shameful yet ineluctable for some to seek the easy way out, like Ali, Dayoub, and co. tried to do.

For foreigners like ex-national team coach Theo Bucker, the match-fixing scandal came as a complete shock, and he admitted that he “never came close to the idea that someone could not just sell the game, but sell their country”. But Bucker needs to be a Lebanese to understand the people’s plight. Even Antar, Lebanon’s skipper, who not only played abroad his entire career but was born and raised in Sierre Leone, can be regarded as a foreigner in this case. Bucker’s wife is Lebanese and he’s been a resident of Beirut for some years now, but unlike many of the players that were involved in the fixing scandal, Bucker wasn’t born during a war, and didn’t live throughout more wars to come and constant political turmoil. To discuss the aftershocks the civil war had on Lebanon’s populace — including its sportsmen — is important, but would be going on a tangent. But to completely disregard this important event and its aftermath would be telling only one half of the story.

As long as Lebanon remains a nation riddled with corruption, match-fixing is far from over.


 

Ilija Trojanovic

Ilija Trojanovic

Ilija Trojanovic is a former staff reporter for the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and currently freelances on several topics ranging from politics, history, and football. For OOTB, he usually combines all three subjects into one. He has also written for: The Daily Star, The Herald (Zimbabwe), World Soccer Talk, The Indypendent, openDemocracy,CounterPunch, Rapid Soccer, Inside Out Borders, and one of his articles -- How, and why, a country sold their spot at the World Cup -- for OOTB was included in A Football Report's top articles of 2015 in the Storytelling section. He can be reached at [email protected]
Ilija Trojanovic

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