Football in the Middle East

Lebanon in World Cup Fever

Politicians in Lebanon utilise football to further their own interests, a situation that has alienated fans and left home terraces empty. As a result, the football-crazy Lebanese are looking forward to the World Cup all the more. Birgit Kaspar reports

photo: DW
Despite the fact that the Lebanese football team again failed to qualify, the Lebanese are enthusiastic about the 2010 World Cup: Beirut grocery store adorned with flags

​​ They've been fluttering from car windows and balconies in Beirut for weeks already – German, Brazilian, Spanish and Italian flags. Little kiosks are springing up like mushrooms all over the city, selling every imaginable kind of football merchandise in various national colours – from flip-flops to shoelaces to cups. Beirut is in World Cup fever. Flag seller Ghada Slim al Ayass says business is good. "People can hardly wait for the World Cup to begin. Some buy several flags at once," she says. German flags are the most popular, closely followed by the Brazilian banner.

One of the reasons why the Lebanese are so enthusiastic about the German and Brazilian national squads is that the Lebanese team again failed to qualify. This is why football fans here identify with teams that they believe can win. And when one of their favourites wins a match in South Africa, then all hell will break lose in Beirut, with hooting cars speeding through the streets, with flag-waving youngsters hanging out of the windows, and celebratory shots ringing out through the city's narrow alleyways.

Watching football under fire

Football was always the number one national sport in Lebanon, stresses Karim Makdisi, a lecturer in international relations at the American University in Berlin, and a keen player himself. He remembers that even the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the dramatic siege of Beirut did not prevent the Lebanese from tracking progress in the World Cup hosted that year by Mexico: "Of course there was no electricity, but many people had a small television set that they hooked up to their car battery, and all the while we were under fire," he says.

photo: DW
Playful opportunism: Football fans in Lebanon identify with teams that they believe can win: German and Brazilian flag over a Beirut street

​​ This ardour stands in stark contrast to the desolate condition that Lebanese soccer finds itself in today. The government barred spectators from stadiums five years ago, ostensibly for security reasons, and championships are played out to empty terraces. Rahim Alameh, Secretary General of the Lebanese Football Association, cannot understand it, because there was never a problem with large-scale, violent outbursts in the stadiums before.

"They're worried about security? Why don't politicians take appropriate action and deploy the police?" he asks. Karim Makdisi believes that political leaders have poisoned football themselves through their confessional rivalries. "First they trigger the problems, then they want to control them." It's playing with fire, he says.

Football defined by politics and religion

Alameh bemoans the fact that following a match-fixing scandal in the year 2001, politicians intervened in the sport, treating it like a pie to be divided up along confessional lines. "Football in Lebanon died in the year 2001. It used to be purely a sporting matter, but it has since been possessed by politicians and religion," he says.

Thereafter, official posts were appointed primarily in accordance with confessional criteria. Individual politicians or parties bought up entire clubs and utilized them in the service of their own interests. In this way, football also became a part of the confessional system, although previously it was one of the few areas in Lebanese public life where politics and religion were irrelevant.

Identity defined by confession

photo: DW
Flags are so cheap to buy, says Birgit Kaspar, fans can switch allegiances according to a team's performance: car with Italian flag

​​ Makdisi says that in a country that is trying to recover from a bloody civil war, this popular national sport could have served as an instrument for reconciling entrenched positions. "A unique opportunity to create a national identity was thereby wasted. Even if that identity is still defined by confession. Football would have been fantastic for that, and wouldn't have cost much either," he says.

But this is obviously not the intention, despite all grandiloquent speeches calling for national unity. The Secretary General of the Football Association, Alameh, shakes his head in resignation. "Our situation is very bleak," he says.

But this will not stop the Lebanese from really enjoying the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. In downtown Beirut, technicians are working around the clock to prepare a World Cup Fan Park for 2,500 visitors with a huge outdoor screen. And in poorer districts, fans have already put out a television set and a few sofas on smaller, empty squares. The national flags will of course be brought along to all these television events. And because the German, Brazilian and Italian flags are so cheap to buy, fans can switch allegiances according to a team's performance. Ensuring that everyone will always be able to celebrate a win.

Birgir Kaspar

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Qantara.de

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