BEIRUT: Lebanese football witnessed its darkest hour Tuesday, after an investigation implicated 24 players along with two club officials as complicit in a slew of match-fixing scenarios, with at least one World Cup qualifier result thought to have been manipulated.
Among the 24 fingered in the investigation conducted by a representative from The West Asian Football Federation, 11 have been capped on a national level, while six have been regular features in recent squads.
The players are believed to have received payments to deliberately affect the outcome of matches, which WAFF General-Secretary Fadi Zreiqat identified as international contests involving the national side as well as the Asian club competition AFC Cup, although at no point did he specify the exact matches under scrutiny.
The damning indictment came after the Lebanese Football Federation tasked Jordanian Zreiqat with acting upon match-fixing suspicions they had harbored for years.
As part of the investigation, Zreiqat questioned 65 witnesses – including 18 club officials, three referees and 44 players – before disclosing the 24 names of the offenders.
In a bid to rid the sport of cheating, the Football Federation announced during a news conference at their headquarters Tuesday that they intended to “sterilize” the much-maligned local league by working with the football clubs to stamp out an epidemic that has plagued the nation for years.
The scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for Lebanese football, with the national side preparing for March, a frenzied month where they will play Bahrain (friendly), Thailand and Uzbekistan in their bid for Asian and World Cup qualification.
National coach Theo Bucker lamented the timing of the report, but stressed that this was a decisive step for Lebanese football.
“I have not really been informed [of the report] but if it this is true then it is a sad day for Lebanese football, and for me personally,” he told The Daily Star.
“It is up to the federation to take another decisive step to improve Lebanese football and to make it a more professional environment to work in.”
The punishments leveled at the guilty parties were divided into four categories, with the most serious sanction involving a lifetime ban from football in addition to a $15,000 fine. All accused players are barred from representing the national side for life.
Ramez Dayoub and Mahmoud al-Ali who represent Selangor FA (Malaysia) and Persiba Balikpapan (Indonesia) as well as Ahed official Fady Fneich were the three culprits to fall under category one, with Dayoub believed to have intentionally distorted the outcome of Lebanon’s 1-0 loss to Qatar June 3, via his now infamous back pass. Ali’s exact involvement is yet to be determined.
Category two carries a three-year ban with immediate effect along with a $7,000 fine, and consists of two players: Mohammad Jaafar (Nijmeh) and Hadi Sahmarani (Ahed).
Category three incurs an immediate one-year ban and a $2,000 fine, and accounts for 20 of the accused: Ali Bazzi, Ali Faour, Ahmad Zreik, Hassan Mezher, Abbas Kanaan, Mohammad Hammoud, Mohammad Abu Atiq, Hussein Dakik, Mohammad Baquir Younes, Tarek al-Ali (Ahed), Ali al-Saade, Omar Owayda, Bachar al-Mukdad (Safa), Issa Ramadan (Ghazieh), Akram Moghrabi, Samer Zeineddine, Nazih Assad, Hasan Alawiyeh, Hussein Sharifeh (Nijmeh) and Ahmad Younes (Al-Khoyol).
Category four involves another Ahed official, team director Ali Zneit, who must now vacate his role after intentionally instructing his side to lose in a match against Al-Jaish Damascus, although he was not mentioned in Zreiqat’s report.
The federation will now turn over the evidence to Interpol, who this month initiated a global crackdown on match fixing after earmarking as many as 380 “suspicious” ties following a lengthy and widespread investigation.
After previously refusing to comment on Dayoub’s alleged role in fixing the result of Lebanon’s World Cup qualifier with Qatar, Bucker finally broke his silence.
“After watching the tape of that match, we saw that Dayoub many times tried with the Qatar striker [Sebastian Soria] to find a way for them to score,” he said. “After seeing this from Dayoub I kicked him out, I never believed in this [match fixing] until I saw Ramiz.”
Bucker’s words will cast a dark shadow over Lebanon, with match fixing prevalent since the days of head coach Emile Rustom. It remains to be seen if Tuesday’s stinging report will finally eradicate a problem that has long plagued Lebanese sport.