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Lebanon’s national basketball team gives crisis-stricken country a glimmer of hope

<i>Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images</i><br/>Tip-off during the FIBA Asia Cup quarterfinal between Lebanon and China.
Getty Images
Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images
Tip-off during the FIBA Asia Cup quarterfinal between Lebanon and China.

By Elizabeth Wells, CNN

The people of Lebanon were given a much-needed reason to smile this week after the Cedars — Lebanon’s national basketball team — fought their way to the finals of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup.

To get there, they battled down to the buzzer against China, winning 72-69 against the Asian powerhouse for the first time ever in the tournament. Lebanon then held on to eke a 86-85 win against regional rival Jordan to make it into the championship game against Australia.

In the end, the Mediterranean nation went home with second place after falling to the Aussies 75-73 — inching to within one possession of the win after clawing back from a 15-point deficit with just six minutes left in the game.

Even without the championship title, team captain Wael Arakji told CNN Sport that their success at the tournament is a reason to celebrate.

“We just want to make our people happy,” Arakji said. “Seeing all these Lebanese fans supporting us, watching all these videos on social media, watching the kids jumping from their seats, their parents enjoying the games with their family is such an honor to all of us.

“It’s been an amazing feeling, an amazing ride. Unfortunately, we finished second, but seeing the support and the 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 across Asia and Oceania go head to head for the title of Asian champion.

The ultimate underdog

Australia is ranked third in the world by FIBA, trailing only the United States and Spain, so Lebanon was the ultimate underdog in the final. Ten out of the 12 team members had never even played in the Asia Cup before, according to Arakji.

Arakji was awarded Most Valuable Player of the tournament, averaging 26 points per game. The team’s triumphs have offered a moment of hope and joy for a country gripped by a devastating financial crisis.

The Lebanese economy has been in tatters since 2019, with the national currency losing over 90% of its value. A UN report estimates that four of every five of the population are living below the poverty line. Widespread shortages of water, electricity, medicine and other basic necessities have become commonplace. The World Bank considers it to be one of the world’s worst economic crises since the mid-19th century.

Arakji tells CNN the tournament run signifies so much more than sport for his team and his country.

“Being able to reach second in Asia right now shows that Lebanon will never die,” he said. “There will always be people that will fight for Lebanon — fight for the Lebanese flag no matter what happens.”

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 its success, Arakji wasn’t interested.

In response to Prime Minister Najib Mikati offering his praise on local radio after the team beat China, Arakji replied to a Facebook post of Mikati’s comments, saying, “Tell him we don’t need his congratulations and we’re trying to clean the s**t he and his fellow politicians put us in. So [if] he can keep his mouth shut, it’ll be better.”

“I needed to write that because we don’t need them to ride the wave,” Arakji told CNN.

“People in Lebanon are fighting for a living. People in Lebanon are dying on a daily basis … 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 a lot of things you guys should take care about other than just congratulating us.”

Despite the turmoil engulfing his country, Arakji says his main focus is to keep pushing forward as a team.

“We showed the world that a small team from a small country from a very ordinary league can fight and can dominate big teams at some point … We set the bar high, so we need to meet the expectation and keep getting better on a daily basis. I believe the sky is the limit.”

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