In this tiny nation of just over four million people, football is one of the most popular sports, and any game played could easily fill up any stadium. Unfortunately for the fans of the world game, due to the tense and sometimes violent political atmosphere, they are forced either to watch from nearby apartments, wait outside their stadium, or view proceedings on live television.
For more than three years now, the Lebanese Football Association (LFA) has imposed a ban on spectators out of fears that sectarian violence could break out. This decision was made in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli war as the government concluded that large gatherings of football fans, many of whom are divided amongst religious and political affiliations, would be best avoided due to the prevailing tensions.
In Lebanon, where politics dominates life, many teams are backed by political parties or religious groups. For example, Al-Ahed is backed by the political party Hezbollah through their television station Al Manar; former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri supported both Al-Nejmeh and Al-Ansar; Shabab al Ghazieh is a Shia Muslim team from the south; Druze politicians support Safa Beirut while Christian majorities support both Club Sportif La Sagesse and Salam Zgharta. The lack of funding of the game has paved the way for such groups (whether for noble or other purposes) to step in and take control of the clubs.
“There are always political problems because every team belongs to politicians and the fan starts to hit each other with cans, sticks, guns or anything else,” says Badwi Al-Maarrawi, a Salam Zgharta fan in the northern town of Zgharta. “The soccer in Lebanon is going down, there is no advertising, no money and no government support.”
Many teams choose players not on their skill and ability, but on their political backing and religion. “There are a lot of good players [in Lebanon]. Some of them go to Germany to play in the Bundesliga, but here there is no support for teams, no budget…” explains Mr Al-Maarawi. Many parties use the teams as a form of political propaganda, with the stronger teams like Al-Ahed paying bribes to politically aligned teams to roll over and lose, a sign of the political tug-of-war in Lebanon. A victory against a rival team is a victory over a team’s political and religious foes.
For many, the only way to watch their teams play is either through live television, listening to it on radio or for the die-hard ones, sneaking past security to watch it live. “Some fans go and watch matches when Salam Zgharta is playing,” says Mr Al-Maarawi.
Violence has broken out in the past as gun incidents and fan troubles are common, with players and coaches sometimes targeted. In 2007, Hussein Dokmak and midfielder Hussein Neim (both of Al-Nejmeh), along with Serbian manager Nenand Stavric were all killed in a roadside bomb blast on their way back from training, the very same bomb that killed politician Walid Eido.
Information about the sport inside Lebanon is scarce on the internet. The LFA doesn’t have an operating website; the only official link to FIFA is the organisation’s webspace on the FIFA website. A Google search comes up with either outdated match reports about various club exploits or of American football being played in Mt Lebanon in Pennsylvania, USA.
Any curious-minded individual would in their first instance turn to Wikipedia to satisfy their curiosity about the sport, but yet the information on some of the various clubs/players/seasons are horribly outdated (with some information still up from 2007) or are incomplete. Most websites that do provide weekly updates are (rightly so) in Arabic, but even some of the clubs websites like Al-Nejmeh haven’t been updated since 2007.
Even though the fan ban doesn’t extent to the national team, support is still not as strong as it could be. While football is a passion for many, the Lebanese team, currently ranked 147 with fellow minnow teams like Maldives, Fiji and New Caledonia further up the ratings ladder, suffers from lack of funds and lack of support from its own people. Teams like Brazil and Germany are followed passionately by the whole nation due to their international exploits, with towns littered in their colours and flags. Yet fewer than 800 turned up to see Lebanon face Uzbekistan in a qualifier for the FIFA World Cup.
“Many people follow teams like Brazil and Italy in Lebanon and whenever they play, it’s like a carnival atmosphere,” says Nicholas Toubia, an architectural student and a Lebanese football fan. “There are many flags put up on homes when they play, but when Lebanon plays many people either don’t know or don’t care. For many, Brazil is their national team.”
So as the hurt in this tiny nation is slowly healing, its football continues to die a slow death…
For more information about the Lebanese Premier League and the national team, visit http://www.fifa.com/associations/association=lib/index.html
Marcel Abboud is a sports mad and socially aware Bachelor of Journalism graduate from the University of Western Sydney.