Hosts Lebanon bid for Asian glory
BEIRUT: The FIBA Asia Cup is set to tip off Tuesday for the first time ever in Lebanon with 16 nations battling it out for continental supremacy.
This year’s tournament will take place from Aug. 8 to 20 and is set to be the first time that teams from across Oceania, most notably Australia and New Zealand, will compete with Asian teams.
Among the favorites to take the gold medal are none other than host nation Lebanon, who open their account against South Korea Tuesday at 9 p.m. local time.
Led by veteran Fadi Khatib, the team will look to the younger generation with the likes of 22-year-old Wael Arakji, Amir Saoud and Ali Haidar. Newly naturalized player Norvel Pelle will also fight to prove his worth and give the Cedars the inside presence they need to beat teams in their group like South Korea, Kazakhstan and New Zealand.
Lebanon last won the Asia Cup in 2007 and the hosts will look to repeat that feat and return to their former position as a regional basketball powerhouse. Former Lithuania head coach Ramunas Butautas will lead the Cedars this year.
“There is no doubt that we are all counting on our national team to perform up to expectations in a team that I can call the ‘Dream Team,’” Lebanese Basketball Federation President Pierre Kakhia said.
Kakhia added that a technical staff has said this year’s national team is one of the best to don the red and white. “We have normally played for second place, so hopefully this time we will be playing for first,” he said.
All games will be played at Kesrouan’s state-of-the-art Nouhad Nawfal Sports Complex with a seating capacity of 8,000.
Asked what the event would mean for Lebanese basketball as a whole, Kakhia said it would lift the level, quality and awareness of basketball domestically.
“There is no doubt that we have to work hard after the event to secure the investments used on the international level in order to transfer it to a better local league,” he added.
Four brackets will divide the 16 teams, with Group A favorites Iran at No. 25 in the FIBA world rankings. Group B favorites, and No. 1 in Asia, China are ranked 14th in the world. Group C will be a tough battle between New Zealand, South Korea and Lebanon, with New Zealand entering the tournament as the No. 20 team in the world. Group D includes tournament favorites Australia, who are No. 10 in the world.
The tournament is expected to draw thousands of fans from all over the region as well as scouts from foreign leagues looking to bolster their club teams.
From Australia alone, 6,000 fans made the trip for the tournament.
“We know this for sure, that many of them came for vacation and decided to stay for the tournament,” Kakhia said.
In addition to the fans, every team has 12 players on its roster, plus another 15 or more in its delegation.
As for media, Kakhia said eight international TV stations made the trip with their crew to broadcast and serve the event.
The teams and staff, including the Lebanese National Team, will be staying at the Hilton Habtoor Hotel in Sin al-Fil.
Lebanon squad: Nadim Souaid, Jean Abdelnour, Amir Saoud, Wael Arakji, Elie Rustom, Charles Tabet, Ali Haidar, Joseph Abizakhour elChartouny, Bassel Bawji, Fadi Khatib, Ali Mezher, Norvel Pelle.
The Cedars will have a tough fight in Group C, which includes world No. 20 New Zealand.