Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kicking Soccer Down in Lebanon

Yes, we're going to satisfy the growing contingent of readers who come to Balkans via Bohemia for world soccer blogging. This week: Lebanon.

The latest edition of Counterpunch features an article by Karim Makdisi -- a professor at the American University in Beirut -- about how Lebanon's fractious politics is mirrored in its soccer culture.

First and most depressing, of course, is that fact that we're still almost exactly two years away from the 2010 World Cup -- and Lebanon is already out:

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.

But Makdisi takes the analysis much deeper, into areas both predictable and novel. He observes -- probably to no surprise for anyone who follows Lebanese culture -- that most of the teams in Lebanon's soccer league have a clear sectarian cast and that the few teams that do attract fans across religious divides are hurting at present:

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.

Makdisi also plunges deep into the uniquely Lebanese intersections of national politics and sports. Domestic league matches are essentially played without spectators as a "preemptive" strike against the chance of sectarian fan violence -- a decision that brings out the author's fierce sarcasm:

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.’

Uglier still, in Makdisi's account, was the recent unsporting manipulation of Lebanon's unfortuately brief World Cup campaign to suck up to external actors (especially the Saudis), despite a mood of national ebullience and good feeling related to the political deal for the country brokered in Doha.

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.

A terrific article.

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