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On Soccer and Politics in Lebanon

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  • On Soccer and Politics in Lebanon

    CounterPunch, CA

    Weekend Edition
    July 5 / 6, 2008

    An Indicator of National Reconciliation?

    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

    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: `g*****oaaal!'
    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

    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

    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

    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:
    [email protected]