Theo Bucker's shrug suggests ignorance rather than indifference when asked if the club he coaches is financed by Hezbollah. The German is much more focused on his other job, head coach of Lebanon, a team on the verge of making the final round of World Cup qualification for the first time in the country's history. His policy of staying well away from the sectarian fault lines that criss-cross the country seems like a sensible one.
"The closest I get to religion is when my Lebanese mother-in-law nags me to go to church in Beirut," he says, then adds with a definite glint in his eye, "but as she is younger than me, it is no problem to refuse."
At the moment, nobody - whether they are Maronite Christian, Druze, Muslim (of the Shia or Sunni variety) or part of any of the 18 groups that make up this nation of four million that nestles on the shores of the Mediterranean - is nagging the wiry manager. The coach has the support of a nation as he takes his religiously mixed to Abu Dhabi for Wednesday's showdown.
NO HISTORY Lebanon has only qualified for one major tournament: the 2000 Asian Cup, for which they qualified as hosts. In five previous attempts to qualify for World Cups, Lebanon has won 11 of 32 matches but has never reach the Asian confederation's final qualifying round.
If Lebanon defeats United Arab Emirates, the team progresses, becoming one of the final 10 vying for one of the Asian Football Confederation's 4.5 spots in Brazil. Sitting two points ahead of Kuwait in Group B, Lebanon can as get through with help from South Korea (who host to Kuwaitis in a simultaneous kickoff on Wednesday), but Lebanon controlling their own destiny is part of this story's charm.
Just a few months ago, not even the former Borussia Dortmund , Duisberg and Schalke midfielder would have expected victory in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Bucker's team lost 6-2 there in a July friendly. Now everything has changed. A win wouldn't be shocking at all. Lebanon, tipped to finish bottom of the four-team group (as the lowest ranked (146) of the 20 teams who started the penultimate round of AFC qualifying), has 10 points from five games -10 more than the UAE.
Looking at the point-haul from the opposite angle: Lebanon has accumulated as many points as 2002 World Cup semifinalist South Korea, leaving the nations tied at the top of their group. It's an impressive status of the Lebanese considering their opening game just outside Seoul ended in a 6-0 loss.
The lopsided result threatened to set the tone for the campaign, but it has not, thanks (according to Bucker) to a "P & P philosophy". Bucker's constant emphasis on pressing without the ball and quick passing has produced results within a team that plays for each other and works incredibly hard. When he dismissed the opening game mauling as a result Ramadan-related fatigue meeting the heat and humidity of the late Seoul summer, it sounded like an excuse. It seems less so now.
Excuses are one thing any Lebanon coach has in abundance. The 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 meant (in soccer terms) the country fell behind regional rivals Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia. With the leagues, leading clubs reflect the sectarian politics. Bucker's own is Al Ahed is a Shia club. Al Ansar is Sunni, and there are teams representing the Druze and Armenian Catholic communities, too.
Last October, the government allowed fans back in the stadiums for the first time in five years. Security concerns and crowd violence had led a ban, one that dealt a devastating blow to the domestic football scene. Facilities are poor, and after Al Jazeera stopped broadcasting matches, there has been little television money.
The shortage of cash means relatively modest injections of fund groups such as Hezbollah can make a real difference. They reap the rewards of positive PR in the communities. "Politics came into football and destroyed it," said Rahif Alameh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Football Association in 2010.
There are no wealthy sheikh,s such as those that finance the game in Kuwait and (especially) UAE. There are no big name stars such as Asamoah Gyan. There's no Diego Maradona for the media, both local and international, to fawn over. Lebanon's star player Youssef Mohamad plays abroad, serving as Fabio Cannavaro's replacement at Al Ahli of Dubai.
The former FC Koln defender is a rare example of a successful export. He still wears Koln's red and white socks in training, a practice Bucker does not mind. He's happy his skipper shows pride in his achievements in front of teammates. Bucker encourages Mohamad to eat with different players every meal - to try and share some Bundesliga habits, even if it is just those of what to eat.
UALIFYING ROAD Expected to struggle in Group B, Lebanon is one result away from securing one of the group's two places in AFC's fourth round qualifying.
Sep. 2, 2011 - South Korea 6, Lebanon 0 Sep. 6, 2011 - Lebanon 3, United Arab Emirates 1 Oct. 11, 2011 - Lebanon 2, Kuwait 2 Nov. 11, 2011 - Kuwait 0, Lebanon 1 Nov. 15, 2011 - Lebanon 2, South Korea 1 Feb. 29, 2011 - United Arab Emirates vs. Lebanon "The players are professional but most are so in name only," Bucker, now in his second spell as boss, says on the team bus heading to practice. "Most of them come from the poor areas of Beirut, and while pay for footballers is relatively good, many of them are still thinking about getting a 'real' job that is stable, like engineering."
That is changing, too. After the loss in Korea, the Cedars bounced back. Only 4,000 turned out in Beirut to see the next match at home to a rival UAE side that was expected to fight with Kuwait for second place. Despite falling behind, Lebanon ran out deserved 3-1 winners. Then came another home match against Kuwaiti. With a minute to go, Bucker was on the verge of another great win, but a last-gasp own goal meant the game ended 2-2.
Lebanon got it back in Kuwait City, 1-0 thanks to a lone strike from Mahmoud Al Eli. The result sent the country into shock. After four games, Lebanon had seven points and sat second. Lebanese journalists started to get excited, noting that with Kuwait having to go to Korea for the last match and almost certain to lose, Lebanon would only need to win in UAE on the final day to progress. The game in Beirut against Korea was seen as a bonus, no-lose situation.
It became more than that. The morning of the game, the country's television channels talked of little else. Then, on a grey and cold Wednesday afternoon in Beirut, 40,000 fans went crazy as their heroes took an early lead. Too early, said some, and sure enough, Korea soon equalized with a penalty from Wolfsburg midfielder Koo Ja-cheol.
Lebanon came back at the visitor who, strangely for a Korean team, looked like it wasn't really up for the fight. Lebanon regained its advantage just before the break, leading to possibly as many prayers in as little time as have every been cast at a football score. The city and (seemingly) whole country chanted "Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah'' "For God's Sake, Lebanon Come On''. The party lasted long after the final whistle sounded, transcending the nation's famous fault lines.
The party will be even bigger if a place is booked in the final 10. Should it happen, even Bucker's mother-in-law is likely to lay off him. For a while, at least.