On Soccer and Politics in Lebanon

Amidst the torturous negotiations to form a ‘national’ unity government in Lebanon—and the rhetoric employed by both March 14 and opposition members alike about building a strong ‘nation’ to bind all of Lebanon’s communities—Lebanon’s national soccer team recently completed the last of six qualification round matches for the 2010 World Cup. The results have been nothing short of disastrous, with consecutive ‘home’ and ‘away’ defeats to Saudi Arabia (1-4, 1-2), Uzbekistan (0-1, 0-3), and Singapore (1-2, 0-2), and fourteen goals conceded in the process. Far from being a trivial sporting matter, the manner of Lebanon’s defeats illustrates the Lebanese political class’s chronic lack of imagination and willful neglect of a genuine nation-building project that could transcend sectarian or clientalist considerations.

soccer and national projects have always gone hand-in-hand in the modern period. The fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini famously used Italy’s triumph in the second world cup of 1934 to bolster his fascist project in Italy. Iran’s memorable victory over the USA in the 1998 World Cup boosted not only Iranian nationalism but also third world solidarity; while the shameful German-Austrian collaboration in the 1982 World Cup (with the full knowledge of the political and commercial interests) to deny a brilliant Algerian team from progressing into the latter rounds recalled European colonial bullying practices. India withdrew from the 1950 World Cup after their national sensibilities were apparently slighted when their request to play with bare feet was turned down by FIFA, the world soccer association. South Korea’s astonishing run to the world cup semi finals it co-hosted in 2002 expressed strong national solidarity, while the 2006 World Cup showcased an attack-minded German team that clearly raised the national morale and confidence of its German hosts. Indeed, soccer has also been used to unite divided communities within a country as was the case when France’s 1998 World Cup triumph showcased a team composed mostly of African and Arab origins, or when Spain’s 2008 European Championship triumph brought together Castilians, Catalans and even Basques under the banner of the Spanish flag.

soccer also tends to express certain collective traits or what might be called ‘soccer culture.’ Commentators and fans often conjure up, albeit in admittedly stereotypical terms, national (or even regional) characteristics such as Itay’s cautious but effective catenaccio, Germany’s steely resolve, Holland’s individualism, Spain’s brittle confidence, England’s work ethic and inflated sense of self-worth, Brazil’s artistry, South Korea’s collective spirit, Latin players’ flair and fiery temperament, and African players’ power. Like all clichés, of course, these descriptions in fact describe particularly famous, or infamous, phases rather than unchangeable realities. Brazil’s decline on the world stage—measured in terms of thrillingly uninhibited play, the only currency anyone really cares about when discussing Brazil—depicts the flaws of such clichés, as does Spain’s recent victory in the European Championships where the team’s undoubted talent and spirit helped them beat their poor confidence demons.

What of Lebanon’s national ‘soccer culture’ then? soccer is Lebanon’s national sport, with kids nation-wide utilizing what space is allowed them within the concrete jungle that is now Lebanon to play, emulate their heroes, and shout the iconic global soccer anthem: “goooooaaal!” Lebanese of all sects, classes and regions follow international soccer tournaments passionately, and it is common for Lebanese to engage in ritual bragging on the streets, obnoxiously honking cars, waving flags, chanting as ‘their’ team (usually European or Brazil) win an important match. Yet soccer has never really been allowed to develop by Lebanon’s authorities that are ever mindful of protecting sectarian identities and preventing a genuine national spirit from emerging. The Lebanese soccer association remains highly politicized, and largely discredited, while the league itself continues to be—inexplicably, given the huge potential for development—non-professional and marked by indiscipline and poor fitness. Moreover, star players—most recently Rida Antar, Lebanon’s most successful export who plays for FC Koln in Germany—routinely turn their nose up at representing their country with little or no negative consequences.

It is difficult then to identify Lebanese national soccer characteristics beyond the traditional regional rivalries that have been transformed into highly politicized sectarian ones. The teams that play in Lebanon’s top division are now generally identified by overtly sectarian (and thus political) affiliation. Thus, al-Ansar is a “Sunni” (read: Hariri) team, the new champions al-‘Ahd are the “Shia’a” (“Hizbullah”) team, Homentmen are an Armenian team, Hikme a Christian (Lebanese Forces) team, and al-Safa is a Druze (Jumblatt) team. Some teams, most notably Nijme—a traditional powerhouse and one of the most popular Lebanese teams—have indeed traditionally drawn support from across the sectarian spectrum, but they are in real danger of losing this national support given the highly charged atmosphere that exists today.  It is equally difficult to comprehend why Lebanese soccer failed to evolve in national terms during the post civil war period given both the commercial and nationalist appeal of such a project. Like nearly all other national ‘civil society’ initiatives that failed during the 1990s, such as the environmental and human rights movements, soccer’s dangerous potential to unite people was extinguished by its cooption by the sectarian elite and indeed the largesse of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who used soccer not so much as a national unifier as much as a marketing tool for his own controversial Reconstruction project.

The events of the past three years have produced two definitive moments that further illustrate the Lebanese authorities’ attitude and explain why Lebanon’s soccering future will remain bleak, just like all national projects in Lebanon, so long as the existing political class and system remains in place. The first was the Council of Minister’s decree in 2005 preventing fans from attending club matches, meaning that such matches were held behind closed doors, a most demoralizing punishment generally used by soccer associations worldwide to sanction clubs in extreme cases of crowd trouble. The explanation for this Council of Ministers’ decision was that this was a pre-emptive measure to avoid sectarian trouble-making among Lebanon’s partisan fans. Considering that the overtly sectarian nature of the political discourse served by the political hacks and politicians broadcast on television 24 hours a day was never seriously addressed, this decision reinforced a clear philosophy of Lebanon’s ruling political class: ‘only we get to control and distribute sectarian poison.’ Perish the thought that the ‘Lebanese street’ might initiate or take control of its own destiny, or that this ‘street’ might actually behave in a more dignified manner than its leaders. Such a scenario—genuine national unity, national reconciliation outside of official control—is the biggest threat to the established sectarian order in Lebanon. Even in light of the Doha Agreement of 21 May, the Council of Minister’s decree remains in effect and there is no reason to think that it will be rescinded in the near future.

The second illustrative moment occurred during the recent world cup qualifying round matches against Saudi Arabia. It is customary worldwide that group matches include ‘home’ and ‘away’ matches for the teams drawn together. On 2 June, Lebanon played Saudi Arabia ‘away’ in Riyadh, performing fairly well until the closing stages when a clear lack of fitness meant that the close 1-2 score became 1-4. For the ‘home’ game scheduled five days later (7 June), Lebanon naturally should have played in Beirut.  However, presumably due to the on-going political and security problems, Lebanon agreed to play its ‘home’ again outside of Lebanon. Still, when a ‘home’ team is compelled to play abroad (this is normally the world federation’s decision taken in exceptional circumstances, as usually national federations fight quite hard to retain their home advantage), it selects a neutral country to play in, preferably one that would still give it some kind of advantage in terms of support. So, Lebanon could have played in a nearby venue with Lebanese expatriates such as Damascus, Amman or even Cyprus.

As it happens, Lebanon’s ‘home’ game fixture was scheduled nearly three weeks following the Doha Agreement and selection of Lebanese President when there was a positive mood, so Lebanon could easily have demanded to play its game—a crucial tie by then that would determine if it had any chance of staying in the tournament—in Beirut. It is easy to imagine the following scenario: the Doha accords produced a positive national mood, the tents in downtown Beirut were lifted, Lebanese flags waved everywhere, nationalist music broadcast, so why not unite behind a national soccer team as a unifying event? Why not at least play in Doha? No, the Lebanese authorities sanctioned what this writer believes to be an unprecedented decision to play its ‘home’ game against Saudi Arabia in….Saudi Arabia.  Much can be said about the fact that Lebanon’s parliamentary majority leader and Prime Minister in waiting, Sa’ad Hariri, is a Saudi subject and that Lebanon’s political class on both sides of the political divide panders to Saudi’s petrodollars (the opposition did not protest this unseemly episode). However, the most likely explanation for this incredible decision—Lebanon was trounced 3-0, and in its final match against Singapore, only ten players bothered to even show up for the final practice match—is that Lebanon’s authorities simply do not care. They are unimaginative, incapable of thinking or planning for a nation or national projects as their interests do not reside in such endeavors.

I recently asked a long-term Nijme fan if he was unhappy about the government’s continued ban on spectators attending matches. He replied that recent events, which have exacerbated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, have made this question moot as they had removed the thin line between soccer and politics, and thus made his support for Nijme impossible for the time being. The fan is a Shi’ite, but a Hariri person (a Sunni) owns Nijme, and alas the scars of Lebanon’s on-going cold civil war are clear. Rather than use Lebanon’s national soccer team to unite people and aid in the reconciliation of its communities, Lebanon’s authorities instead continue to neglect such potential while its ruling class encourages further division amongst the country’s soccering communities that would preserve their power and their stranglehold in formulating, and sustaining, Lebanon’s fragile sectarian identity.

For those who used the recent Doha agreement to manufacture euphoria in the streets of Beirut and evoke empty promises of yet another ‘new’ dawn in Lebanon, let them instead lift their ban on soccer fans watching live matches, de-politicize the soccer association, professionalize the soccer league, and above all find creative ways to unite the Lebanese behind a national team they can be proud of. For the rest of us, we would be wise to keep a close eye on the fate of Nijme soccer club and the evolution of its support base that may turn out to be the best indicator of national reconciliation in the country.

KARIM MAKDISI is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Dept. of Political Studies and Public Administration
at the American University of Beirut. He can be reached at: karim.makdisi@yahoo.com







Karim Makdisi teaches Political Studies at the American University of Beirut and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs. Makidis is a co-editor of two forthcoming volumes – Land of Blue Helmets: the United Nations in the Arab World, co-edited with Vijay Prashad (University of California Press) and Interventions in Conflict: International Peacekeeping in the Middle East, co-edited with Rami Khouri and Martin Waehlisch (Palgrave-Macmillan).