Soccer again

Karim Makdisi writes an excellent article about the politics of football – and its politicization, aslo mentioning the ‘Hezbollah’ team’s al-‘Ahd’s recent win of the league competition – and why there was nobody there to see it: 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Agreement of 21 May, the Council of Minister’s decree remains in effect and there is no reason to think that it will be rescinded in the near future.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.’

And no, there is no national unity government yet. Or any government. The latest episode in this at times very entertaining sitcom has Samir Geagea demanding the Ministry of Justice. The mind cannot but boggle…..

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