They call him “Al Raheeb” – “The Fearsome” – and with good reason. Wael Arakji is a force on the basketball court: fast, unrelenting, and captivating.
The lefty point guard helped guide Lebanon to the silver medal at the Fiba Asia Cup in Indonesia last year and was named tournament MVP, thanks to a stream of impressive performances that included a 32-point showing against China in the quarter-finals. In a tight defeat to Australia in the final, Arakji tallied up 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Overall, he averaged a team-high 26 points per game for the Cedars and firmly positioned himself as one of the most exciting players on the Asian continent.
Spearheaded by coach Jad El Hajj, Lebanon notched seven consecutive victories in the Asia qualifiers to secure a spot in the 2023 Fiba World Cup and return to the competition for the first time since 2010.
Having completed a trio of tune-up games at Abu Dhabi’s International Basketball Week, which included a victory over Egypt and defeats to Mexico and Arizona State, Arakji and his teammates are ready to make their World Cup debut – none of the current group featured in the competition before – and are once again Jakarta-bound, looking to make their country proud.
“Honestly it means a lot, especially that all our staff, except our physiotherapists, we’ve never been to the World Cup,” Arakji told The National at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena.
“So it feels so good, to grow up with these guys, I’ve played with most of the guys since under-14, under-16, under-18, so we dreamt of getting to this level and I’m just happy we were able to get here all together. It’s been a childhood dream for all of us and we’re just super excited to get started there.”
It has been 13 years since Lebanon competed in the World Cup and Arakji feels this campaign carries a deeper meaning to himself and his teammates. The tragic Beirut blast in 2020 and the economic crisis in Lebanon that has followed since have provided extra fuel for the Cedars to give everything they can for the national team and Arakji insists they have zero intention of stopping now.
“Everything that happened in Lebanon gave us the motivation to just fight for our country and this is what we did,” said the 28-year-old from Beirut, who is coming off a six-week layoff due to an injured calf.
“Our country has been through a lot and as players we have a message to send through sports, through basketball, and I believe that we did.
“We showed everyone that Lebanon is never going to give up, we’re here to fight for our country, we’re here to fight for our people and we’re just going global to the World Cup, so just putting Lebanon’s name in international tournaments is just amazing.”
Lebanon has landed in a loaded Group H in the World Cup alongside Canada, France and Latvia, whom they face in their opener on Friday.
The Cedars have bolstered their roster by adding Cleveland-born former NBA player Omari Spellman, who gained Lebanese citizenship earlier this year in order to join Team Lebanon at this World Cup.
“To be realistic, our first round is going to be very tough, we’re playing against three very good national teams but all we can do is just fight,” said Arakji, who plays for Al Riyadi Beirut and took part in the NBA Summer League for the Dallas Mavericks in 2019.
“We’re not going to give up. We will try to give a hard time to all three national teams that we’re facing. You never know, it’s five against five, maybe one bad night for any of these big national teams we might steal a win.
“This is what we’re aiming for, this is what we’re hoping for, so hopefully any of them will have a terrible night and we have a great night and we can steal a win.”
The Lebanese can draw confidence from their performances in Asia these past couple of years and this group of unselfish and ambitious players have shown they are capable of punching above their weight.
Arakji is quick to steer the conversation away from himself when asked about being crowned Asia Cup MVP, and insists his team’s true superpower is their unity, more than anything else.
“Honestly the MVP just came because of a collective work. The way we all played together, the support that my teammates gave me helped me get the MVP of Fiba Asia, but it doesn’t really matter,” he says.
“Just the fact that we qualified for the World Cup and we finished second during Fiba Asia, we gave a very hard time for Australia [in the final] just is very good for us. Hopefully we can get better and better, year by year, day by day.
“It’s a great group of people and a great group of guys, with a great coach. The sky is the limit for us hopefully.”
International Basketball Week wrapped up in Abu Dhabi on Sunday evening with USA beating Germany 99-91 at Etihad Arena.
The Fiba World Cup kicks off across three countries, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, on Friday, August 25, with three Arab nations taking part: Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.