'Heads held high' in Lebanon as pride in Cedars basketball team salves Asia Cup loss

The form of The Cedars was a rare bright spot for a country suffering from a devastating economic collapse

Wael Arakji of Lebanon was awarded Most Valuable Player of the the Fiba Asia Cup. Getty Images
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Lebanon’s men's basketball team fell agonisingly short in their attempt to win the Fiba Asia Cup after they were beaten 75-73 by Australia in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sunday evening.

The Cedars were behind by 14 points heading into the fourth quarter, but a dramatic late charge saw them close the gap to two by the final whistle.

The team's stunning run to the final, which also saw them defeat Jordan and Asian powerhouse China in the knockout stages, has been a rare bright spot for a country enduring one of the worst economic downturns in modern history.

An economic collapse, that first became apparent in 2019, has plunged much of the population into poverty and led to the local currency losing more than 90 per cent of its value. There are also widespread shortages in water, electricity, medicine and other basic necessities.

The August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed more than 200 people and injured at least 7,000, and the Covid-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the situation. The 2020 explosion has been blamed on mismanagement and corruption, and is viewed as a symptom of — but also symbolic of — the country's mounting systemic problems.

“What we've done is already enough for the Lebanese people to have a breath of fresh air again," said Rami Naamani, an ardent basketball fan from Beirut. "Just to see there's a light in this country, somehow, through a sport. Because otherwise, there's no hope I think. Whatever they do today, we have our heads held high."

Wael Arakji, who top-scored with 28 points, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

The Fiba Asia Cup takes place every four years and comprises teams from Asia and Oceania as of 2017. Its predecessor, the Asia Championship, in which Lebanon appeared in the final three times, comprised only Asian teams. But that last appearance was in 2007 and the team was suspended in 2013 amid infighting at the country’s basketball federation.

Mr Naamani, a follower of both the Lebanese national team and the National Basketball Association, said it was the team's chemistry that made them so great. In the last three or so years, the team has been in the process of being rebuilt, he added.

“They're very unselfish. You can feel this. They are one unit, we have been missing that for a while. Now we have a young team. They are growing together and getting better together. I think this is the main reason [for their success]. It's not all about skill. It's more like the chemistry and the fight they're showing us,” he said.

Lebanon politicians were quick to heap praise on the team following the end of their campaign. President Michel Aoun said they had shown that "nothing is impossible" with willpower. He said the team had sent a message to the world "that you are from a country that has not and will not surrender".

But the intervention of politicians, who are held responsible for Lebanon's competing woes, is not without controversy.

When Lebanon beat China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, Arakji responded strongly to a message from Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati congratulating the side.

In a Facebook message, he said: "Tell him we don't need his congratulations and we're trying to clean the excrement he and his fellow politicians put us in. So [if] he can keep his mouth shut, it'll be better.

"We come from a broken country. We come from a country that’s full of sadness. So, we just want to make our people happy.”

Updated: July 25, 2022, 7:46 AM