Though football has been widely played in Lebanon for more than a century, in the past few years, sectarian violence has been rising, and supporters of local teams, themselves divided along sectarian lines, have begun battling each other during games, forcing the police and army to intervene.
Now, as the football season kicks off in Lebanon, teams will play in empty stadiums, and spectators will be forced to watch from home, as the rift between sects, and more broadly between the March 14 forces and the March 8 alliance, has poisoned the traditionally festive ambiance of football games in the aftermath of the 2006 July War.
But how the game – the teams and their supporters – became divided along religious lines stems from the fact that practice of the sport was at first divided along class lines. “Contrary to other countries where football is considered the game of the people, it was introduced by the educated class to Lebanon,” said Ali Hamid Sakr, sports editor at the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal and the author of an encyclopedia on Lebanese football.
The game was first played in Lebanon by foreign teachers in the late 1800s at the American University of Beirut, when it was still known as the Syrian Protestant College. “The game grew in popularity with the migration of Armenians to Lebanon, and under the French mandate,” said Sakr.
The first football competition in the country was played in 1934, and a year later, Lebanon joined the International Federation of Football Association.
Football was initially an elite game and mostly played in Christian schools. For example, Nahda and Sagesse, both Christian teams, shared an internecine rivalry that drew massive crowds, noted Sakr.
Lebanese football, along with everything else in the country, had its golden age from the 1960s until 1975, when the civil war created an abrupt end to most nation-wide arts and leisure activities.
During the war years, from 1975 to 1990, national and local football in Lebanon came to an end, as Beirut was cut in half by the Green Line, physically dividing religious communities and their teams. After the war, more players from lower-income families started to join the various clubs and start their own along religious lines. “Low-income Sunni and Shia areas provided Lebanese clubs with scores of talented players,” said Sakr.
Nejmeh, which was founded by the Druze and Sunni communities from the Ras Beirut area, takes its name – meaning star in Arabic – from the five-star Druze religious symbol. The Druze community launched the Safa football club after it lost Nejmeh’s presidency to Saeb Salam, a prominent Sunni figure. Al-Ansar, a team crowned national champions 13 times, has predominately Sunni Muslim players and fans, while the Beirut Al-Ahad and al Mabarra clubs (the latter is backed by Sheikh Hassan Fadlallah) have mainly Shia players and supporters. Nahda, which is now defunct, was an Orthodox team.
Other clubs with strong religio-ethnic bases are Homenetmen and Homenmen, both Armenian Catholic clubs; and Hikmeh, which is Maronite.
But the country’s history of religious divisions is not the only reason behind Lebanese football’s sectarian split. Since the end of the war, clubs in need of financial backing turned to rich and powerful donors, who are often politicians.
Jihad Shahf of the Lebanese Football Association said that Lebanese clubs’ tight budgets have allowed the political parties who finance them to intervene more actively in the sport. Al-Ahad, for example, is backed by Hezbollah, while Prime Minister-designate and Future Party leader Saad Hariri supports Nejmeh and Ansar, and Bahij Abou Hamzeh, a Druze businessman, supports Safa, Shahf said. Naturally, supporters of political figures also support their teams, and any discord between political parties translates into discord in the stands.
“The LFA has suggested bringing in only registered supporters for each club in order to control possible outbreaks of violence, but this suggestion has not been yet endorsed by the government,” Sakr said.
For now, stadiums remain empty and silent during games. Football has, as the world’s most popular sport, transcended race, religion and class. In Lebanon, however, football is far from being a uniting game. Instead it is but another reflection of the dissention and tension that plague this religiously diverse country.