Lebanon’s national basketball team brings a beacon of hope to a country in crisis
By Elizabeth Wells, CNN
The Lebanese people had a well-deserved reason to smile this week after the Cedars – the Lebanese national basketball team – battled their way to the finals of the International Basketball Federation Asian Cup- ball (FIBA).
To get there, they battled to the buzzer against China, winning 72-69 against the Asian powerhouse for the very first time in the tournament. Lebanon then held on to claim an 86-85 win over regional rivals Jordan to advance to the league game against Australia.
In the end, the Mediterranean nation came home in second place after falling to the Aussies 75-73 – coming within one possession of victory after recovering from a 15-point deficit with just six minutes left to play.
Even without the league title, team captain Wael Arakji told CNN Sport that their success at the tournament was cause for celebration.
“We just want to make our people happy,” Arakji said. “To see all these Lebanese fans supporting us, watching all these videos on social media, watching the kids jump out of their seats, their parents enjoying the matches with their families is such an honor for all of us.
“It was an incredible feeling, an incredible race. Unfortunately, we finished second, but seeing the support and happiness we brought to Lebanon made us feel like we won the tournament.
The FIBA Asia Cup, which takes place every four years, sees teams from Asia and Oceania compete for the Asian Championship title.
The ultimate underdog
Australia are ranked third in the world by FIBA, behind the United States and Spain, so Lebanon were the ultimate underdogs in the final. Ten of the 12 squad members had never even played in the Asian Cup before, according to Arakji.
Arakji received the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, averaging 26 points per game. The team’s triumphs offered a moment of hope and joy for a country in the grip of a devastating financial crisis.
The Lebanese economy has been in tatters since 2019, with the national currency losing more than 90% of its value. A UN report estimates that four out of five people live below the poverty line. Widespread shortages of water, electricity, medicine and other basic necessities have become commonplace. The World Bank considers this to be one of the worst global economic crises since the mid-19th century.
Arakji told CNN the tournament means much more than sport to his team and his country.
“To be able to reach second place in Asia right now shows that Lebanon will never die,” he said. “There will always be people who will fight for Lebanon – will fight for the Lebanese flag no matter what.”
The World Bank has called the situation in Lebanon a “deliberate depression” orchestrated by the country’s ruling elite. So when political leaders jumped on the bandwagon to congratulate the team on their success, Arakji was not interested.
In response to Prime Minister Najib Mikati offering his praise on local radio after the team beat China, Arakji responded to a Facebook post of Mikati’s comments, saying, “Tell him we don’t need of his congratulations and that we’re trying to clean up the s**t he and his fellow politicians put us in. So [if] he can shut up, it will be better.
“I needed to write this because we don’t need them to ride the wave,” Arakji told CNN.
“The Lebanese are fighting to earn a living. In Lebanon, people are dying daily… So, as a basketball player, as a public figure, I had to send a message to the Prime Minister and to all politicians: there are many things you should be concerned about other than just to congratulate us.
Despite the turmoil enveloping his country, Arakji says his main goal is to keep moving forward as a team.
“We showed the world that a small team from a small country in a very ordinary league can fight and can dominate big teams at some point… We have set the bar high, so we have to live up to expectations and keep improving ourselves everyday.. I believe the sky is the limit.
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