Political and religious rivalries are destroying Lebanon's football culture / by Justin Salhani

 The facade of Nejmeh Club's battered stadium. Nejmeh is one of Lebanon's most storied and well-supported clubs. Photo by Justin Salhani.

The facade of Nejmeh Club's battered stadium. Nejmeh is one of Lebanon's most storied and well-supported clubs. Photo by Justin Salhani.

Words Justin Salhani
Edits Mat Nashed

I knew it was over when I heard the pop. A cleat stuck in poorly-lain astroturf tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and, at 24 soon to be 25, that would signal the end of my football career. For most players, an ACL tear is a setback, but when the professional club you’re on trial with has no medical staff, no team doctor, no fans to sing your name, and no money to pay their players, you have a judgement call to make. Do you rehab, get surgery, more rehab, and fight your way back for another trial, all while maintaining a full time 9-5? Or do you throw yourself into a career as a journalist and put football behind you?

This is professional football in Lebanon. Here, politics and identity take higher precedence than what happens on the pitch. Disorganization, lack of professionalism, and corruption, define the local football culture.

Football is an art. Like any other artform, it emerges from the local culture. It’s why the factories of England created a technically limited lung buster like Wayne Rooney, why the Tango culture of Argentina produced the fleet footed magistry of Javier Pastore, and the cold, clinicality of the Dutch bestowed Dennis Bergkamp and his clocklike, telekinetic, creativity - clocklike in its reliability and telekinetic in its execution -  to the world.

But football culture in Lebanon is not defined by beauty. It’s defined by hooligans, often unperturbed by the match before them, who sing derogatory chants, and politicians kicking back and letting the political sectarian embers burn. Who cares if referees bring matches to a halt when you need to kill the supporters of your rivals?

Meanwhile, football lovers who are uninterested in religious tribalism turn to European football for better quality and more access.

“Lebanon, for me, doesn't have a football culture, at least when it comes to the local league,” Hussein Ahmad, a Liverpool fan and former teammate recently told me. “Politics plays a big part in Lebanese football and has tainted the local league. I've gone to several live matches and the overwhelming majority of songs don't even involve the teams but rather the political parties associated to them.”

  Lebanon's football fans turn to Europe for better quality and a more holistic culture.

Lebanon's football fans turn to Europe for better quality and a more holistic culture.

Before a long term injury took him out of the game, Hussein was a marauding left back. A slight swivel of his hips would throw defenders the wrong way and he’d touch the ball past them with slight, controlled bursts of acceleration.

I met Hussein playing for the David Nakhid Academy, a former second division club. Nakhid, the owner, coach, and who recently ran for FIFA president, is the first Trinidadian to ever play in Europe and scored eight goals in 35 appearances for his country. He’s widely regarded as the best player to ever set foot in the Lebanese domestic league. As a coach, he'd adopted the Sir Alex Ferguson approach of strict discipline for his players, peppered with stories of the character and tenacity it took for him to succeed in Europe as a player.

Under David, I got game time in central midfield against strong opponents, including a few Premier League teams. In my most dominant performance, I got the better of a player who had been in and out of the Lebanese national team. Impressed by my ball movement and reading of the game David told my teammates (in my absence) that I was a player of unique cerebral qualities in a country filled with mazzy dribblers and audacious attackers. “You’ll be playing for the Lebanese national team soon with these performances,” he told me once over the phone.

In 2012, David took over the club Racing Beirut. He told a few players from his team, including Hussein and me, that he wanted us to sign with him the following season.

The closest either of us came was playing in a scrimmage with Racing. There weren’t enough jerseys to go around that day. When I was instructed to step on the pitch, I was forced to borrow the sweat-drenched, Size L kit of a 30-something-year-old Palestinian first teamer. The whistle blew seconds after I crossed the touchline. My stats were as follows: >1 minute played. 0 touches.

The next match I played in would be my last. DNA was set to play Racing’s first team in a scrimmage.

As we lined up on an urban turf field with tattered goal nets, Lebanon’s snow-peaked mountains jutted out over the tops of sprawling, off-white buildings. Staccato bursts of taxi horns rang in the air as a highway ran alongside the parking lot to the pitch. Since fans tend to only take interest in the hooligan part of the game, none were in attendance that day. Some teams have decrepit stadiums, but Racing only had this battered pitch with trash-strewn sidelines in Beirut's Qasqas neighborhood.

I lined up in central midfield and found myself face to face with a foreign player from west Africa. Foreign players are limited in the Lebanese league, so foreigners are often the star's on the pitch. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that he was faster and stronger. I had to be more technical and intelligent with my touches and passes. Not much of note happened in the first twenty minutes. I completed my passes and covered defensive angles well, not allowing my counterpart any chance to ruin our clean sheet.

Lebanon, for me, does not have a football culture.

My confidence started to grow as I received the ball at the top of my own 18 yard box. I saw my right winger in open space and tried bending a ball around an opposing midfielder. The pass was poor. Immediately realizing the ball didn’t get enough curl and would land at my opponent's feet, I sprinted at the ball. I wouldn’t make it.

A cleat on my right boot, a new pair of Adidas Predators, caught the disheveled turf. I heard a pop. My leg went limp. Then came throbbing pain. I moaned in agony. In hindsight, the pain was manageable. It was the realization of what this meant that hurt.

That was it. I wouldn't be signing a contract with Racing. I wouldn't be learning the words to the Lebanese national anthem so I could sing them with national team. A career that never really took off was over.

I swore off football. With no tangible football culture, it wasn’t hard to avoid the game. In the next two years, I rarely laced up a pair of boots. Football was my past. Journalism was my future.

Hussein didn’t last much longer. David left Racing the following season. Hussein had meetings with the president of Nejmeh, but opted against signing on David’s advice. He picked up a serious injury and has gone three years without playing. He’s now living in Zambia and working in finance. He still watches as much European football as he can, and never misses a Liverpool match. But Lebanese football is far from his mind.

“I do not support a local Lebanese team,” he told me. “I am not interested in Lebanese football. There are a multitude of reasons for this from lack of support in the stadiums during game time to the quality on the field.”

 Pitches with no lines and nets left to rot. Photo by Justin Salhani.

Pitches with no lines and nets left to rot. Photo by Justin Salhani.

Lebanon is a small country in the Middle East and home to around 4 million nationals -- many of whom are football addicts. Pubs are packed like sardine tins when Barcelona plays Real Madrid in ‘El Classico’ and the seafront road erupts with the elation of car horns and fireworks when one of the favored national teams (Italy, Germany, Brazil) wins a match at an international tournament.

But the same can hardly be said of the domestic league. In Lebanon’s first division, there are more religious sects (18) than teams (12). From 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese fought a brutal, civil war. While fighting stopped, the fear and tension of a return to dark days has not. Social safety nets are non-existent, electricity is scarce, and clean drinking water is expensive at best, and inaccessible at worst. Animosity still simmers underneath Lebanese society’s surface, and many use their football clubs as an outlet to express it.

The country’s most historically successful club is Ansar and represents the Sunnis of Beirut. Ahed, the best club at the moment, is aligned with the Shia political group Hezbollah, who the U.S. views as a terrorist organization. During my time in Lebanon, I had brief stints with Safa, a team owned by a former Druze warlord, and Racing Beirut, affiliated with the Orthodox Christians. Nejmeh, another historic Beirut club, has a more diverse fanbase, though most are Shia and its owner is traditionally Sunni.

Ziad Itani is a 41-year-old stage actor from a Sunni neighborhood in Beirut called Tareeq al-Jadideh. His connection to the neighborhood means he's predisposed to support Ansar, but he’s gone against the communal tide and instead follows Nejmeh.

“In other countries you see that the fans of any club would follow the club of their own city,” Itani told me. “Cities and villages in Lebanon are small, so the sects adopted teams.”

Political and sectarian tension has always perniciously resonated within the domestic game. But just to be clear, the hatred isn’t based on religion. It’s based on politics, that are more times than not divided along religious lines. In the past, though, football overcame. The rivalries on the pitch were so sumptuous that political animus was benched.

During the glory days of Lebanon’s football league (the 90s and early 00s) businessmen and politicians took an interest to the domestic game. The league was flush with money and even the crown of non-traditional powerhouse teams possessed a foreign jewel. At varying times, Tadamoun Sour (from Tyre in the south) had Mohamed Kallon, a Sierra Leonean who would later play for Inter Milan and Monaco, Olympic Beirut signed South African international Pierre Issa, and Shabab al-Sahel owned the league’s leading scorer, an Iraqi named Mahmoud Majeed.

Itani’s team Nejmeh signed players like Errol McFarlane, a Trinidad and Tobago national teamer, and Egyptian national team captain Tarek Yehia.

 Nejmeh is only in preseason but that doesn't stop the local ultras from attending training. Fans discuss the squad and get acquainted with the new foreign players. Photo by Justin Salhani.

Nejmeh is only in preseason but that doesn't stop the local ultras from attending training. Fans discuss the squad and get acquainted with the new foreign players. Photo by Justin Salhani.

Their main rivals, Ansar, (who won 11 straight titles between 1988 and 1999) had Trinidadian national teamers Peter Prosper, a powerful striker who I played with on David’s team when he was 40, and, the GOAT, David Nakhid - the Lebanese Premier League’s answer to Eric Cantona, with his popped collars and outrageous turns of skill.

It wouldn’t prove to last though. Money left the league in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri raised sectarian tension in the country. Hariri was also the owner of Ansar and Nejmeh. After Hariri’s death, fans were banned from attending matches as authorities worried sectarian driven riots and clashes inside stadiums would manifest into something more serious.

Fans weren’t allowed back to see the team play for another seven years. Without atmosphere, what is football? It’s why England appeals to so many managers and players (though the money also surely helps.)

When fans were allowed back to watch their teams play in 2012, the first match's attendance of 108 sent a resounding message. The league was dead. Financiers abandoned Lebanese football teams, and thus so did their star players. Like a plant gone unwatered, the league wilted in thirst for cash.

Joseph Haboush is a Richmond native of Lebanese descent. I’ve never seen him play in person, but his Youtube clips for Safa remind me of Arsenal’s latest signing Granit Xhaka. Haboush’s long balls are celestial. They divinely arc through the air and land preciously at the feet of his attacking teammates. But his best feature seems to be his reading of opposition attacks. He is a predator and the ball is his prey as his positioning for, and timing of, interceptions is immaculate.

His talents led Safa to the Premier League title this past year and recently got him a call up to the Lebanese national team. Last month though, Habboush hung up his boots. He’s now a 26-year-old retired footballer.

“I was fed up with everything being based on religious and political beliefs,” Habboush told me in a recent meeting in downtown Beirut. He now works at the same newspaper where I started my career. He’s set football completely aside and covers politics. “It’s the same with the national team. When the stadium is full it's going to lead to a fight between political beliefs.”

In each of his three seasons with Safa, Haboush grew more frustrated. One year, it took the entirety of the season for his team to get paid. One of the team’s figureheads had a falling out with Walid Jumblatt, a former Druze warlord turned political heavyweight, and booked himself a one way ticket to prison. An already shaky organization lost any semblance of order.

The lack of culture struck Lebanese footballers again. Corruption, amateurishness, and political discord -- often ending in riots -- were not going away. He rejected an offer from a club in Bulgaria and waited for something more substantial, but when nothing came through, he decided to call it quits.

My experiences in Lebanese football, though less extensive, mirror his. Three years before Haboush signed for Safa, I had a brief trial there.

Safa’s stadium is small by American or European standards, only capable of fitting a couple thousand supporters at most. It’s tucked behind a crumbling Beirut neighborhood littered with dilapidated, concrete homes. The stadium's exterior walls are old and crumbling on the edges though the structural integrity of the arena is largely intact. When I first arrived for my trial in 2010, a few young men lounged on the side of the field, others walked in and out of locker rooms, while a couple older, potbellied men chatted quietly on the sidelines. I changed into my clothes on the field.

Cities and villages in Lebanon are small, so the sects adopted teams.

I was sent off to train on the far side of the field where an assistant coach was running a passing accuracy drill. He gawked the drill’s instructions. The players looked disinterested at best, disrespectful at worst. I was the only one who completed all my passes perfectly. I was also the only player taking the drill serious.

After the training session, the coach told me I could sign a contract with the team. I told him I wasn’t yet a Lebanese citizen, but was working on my paperwork. He said they had reached the quota for foreign players, but I could stay and train with the first team until my paperwork came through.

The news was exciting, but as the following weeks wore on that sentiment faded. Training sessions were unorganized and often involved long lectures -- in a language I didn’t then understand. Drills were too long and players didn’t take them, or the team in general, seriously. They’d often pick fights with coaches out of boredom. There was a revolving door of guys at training and it was hard to discern who was actually a squad member fighting for playing time. Meanwhile, Lebanese bureaucracy meant I wasn’t getting anywhere on the paperwork for the nationality.

I decided that in order to get games I should drop down a level. I joined a team ran by David Nakhid, the former Ansar and Trinidad star. Less than two years later, my ACL would give out and so would my football career. At 24, I let myself careen over the side that said Lebanese Premier League status wasn’t as important or as enticing as starting a sustainable career as a journalist.

 Lebanon's then-national team coach Theo Bucker.

Lebanon's then-national team coach Theo Bucker.

The year my ACL tore, Safa went on to win the Premier League title. I never got close to the national team, but under the guise of the vivacious German coach Theo Bucker, they went on an impressive run of results in 2014 World Cup Qualifying.

They beat the United Arab Emirates and drew against Kuwait in Beirut, before beating them away. The excitement surrounding the team intensified as the Cedars (the Lebanese team’s moniker) prepared for a visit from South Korea. The last time these two teams met, the Lebanese had been obliterated 0-6 in Seoul. But the atmosphere that emerged depicts just how little momentum it takes for Lebanese to get excited about football, and how badly they crave their own domestic football culture.

I had started working as a reporter for a Lebanese newspaper less than a month before South Korea and Lebanon faced off at the Camille Chamoun Stadium in Beirut. The atmosphere outside that day was like visiting a European stadium on matchday. Fans waved red and white striped flags and painted their faces with green cedar trees. Young kids wore smaller versions of the Lebanon replica kits on the their parents' backs. Television reporters, more accustomed to covering political feuds and stories about the world's largest plate of whatever local culinary delicacy, surrounded the arena's periphery, adding to the match's aura of significance.

“There was this huge buzz throughout the country about the game,” Hussein told me recently.

But even on such a momentous occasion, sectarian chants rang through the stadium before kick off as political rivals sang back and forth. Supporters of the party founded by Hariri traded barbs with advocates of Hezbollah. It didn’t last beyond kick off though, as the play on the pitch silenced even the most vocal sectarian voice. Lebanon thoroughly outplayed the South Koreans and won the game 2-1. The only chants echoing through the stadium after the match were related to the glory of the national team.

Lebanon went on to qualify for the fourth and final round of World Cup Qualifying. They were drawn in a tough group with Iran, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and South Korea. Fans were in raptures about their chances though, and many expected to see their team in Brazil. A loss in the first match at home to Qatar though derailed their plans. But the Lebanese still had hope. They wanted to believe. They wanted to be proud of Lebanese football.

Lebanon finished qualifying with a meek record of 1 win, 2 draws, and 5 losses. It would later emerge that the Lebanese league was riddled with matchfixing. Twenty four Lebanese players were given fines and suspensions. Six were Lebanese national teamers and two of those received lifetime bans. They were accused of throwing the match against Qatar.

“I never came close to the idea that someone could not just sell the game, but sell their country,” Bucker told the BBC in 2013.

 The entrance to Fouad Chehab Stadium in Jounieh, Lebanon.  Photo by Justin Salhani.

The entrance to Fouad Chehab Stadium in Jounieh, Lebanon.  Photo by Justin Salhani.

The current manifestation of the Lebanese league is a relic of what it once was. Incomes are low and players are often forced to work second jobs as mechanics, in hotels, or wherever they can find flexible hours that allow them to train and travel to matches.

Countless taxi drivers speak about their run as professional footballers. Eventually, either through injury or age, their legs could no longer carry them and they were forced to find another way to survive. Now they, like the cars they drive to squeak a living, are weary, weathered, and not running at full speed.

Faced with the prospect of driving a taxi on retirement, I sometimes wondered if I would do the same. How many Lebanese Lira would it take to sell your dignity, and a country that consistently robs you of it, for a bit of financial security for you and your family? There’s no doubt it isn’t morally or ethically correct. But glory eventually fades, and with no fans around to sing your name, what difference does it make? Besides, dignity doesn’t feed your family.

Lebanon has no shortage of footballing talent. Tricksters in the mold of Ronaldinho-lite can be found in abundance. Kids wear counterfeit Messi and Ronaldo shirts while kicking around in every available patch of grass or concrete they can find. But the domestic game struggles to develop. It’s not all about quality, either.

The top leagues in the world are certainly in Europe, but fans in countries like Mexico, Egypt, Colombia, and South Korea all adore their hometown teams. In the United States, there are many football hipsters who prefer the European leagues to their domestic counterparts, but Major League Soccer still has a dedicated fan base.

“There’s no lack of passion,” Haboush told me about football in Lebanon. “The problem is there’s no base. Everyone in the first division is a raw talent with no technical or mental development. You get fitness from the training but when it comes to the technical and tactical side, nobody knows anything. It’s all individualistic. The kids I’ve seen that are 12 to 15 have the same technical ability as anybody, but they lose coaching.”

Many of the coaches are stars from the 90s and early 00s. Some carry massive chips on their shoulders and instead of developing talent, they berate players for being unable to meet a vision the coach can’t effectively communicate. This leads to a lack of professionalism among clubs, and for guys like Haboush, it takes the fun out of the game.

In many corrupt leagues around the world, fans can act as a saving grace. Ultras often have unparalleled power and influence—just look at the rapport between Roma’s Francesco Totti and the Curva del Sud. The adulation the fans have for star players and the bond the supporters and players form can do incredible things. But in Lebanon, this simply doesn’t exist.

“There’s no culture in the local league,” Haboush said. This lack of culture resonates through every aspect of the country. While locals may know the name Roda Antar – a former Bayern Munich and national team player – footballers don’t permeate popular culture the way even someone like Clint Dempsey does in the United States. You won’t see them in ads or on late night talk shows. This lack of access to not only players, but teams, and the league in general has a devastating effect on building a real culture around Lebanese football.

Kareem Chehayeb is a massive West Ham. He watches all the games and knows every fringe player trying to break into Slaven Bilic’s struggling side. Here’s the catch; West Ham may have been entertaining last season with the infusion of Dimitri Payet carving up defenses, but for most of Kareem’s 20-something years they haven’t been a team known for entertainment or winning – two reasons that usually attracts fans to clubs. So, I asked Kareem why a Lebanese club couldn’t capture his imagination.

“Quality plays a role, but also the lack of access to follow up with it, like on tv,” he told me. “Also the league was closed doors [to fans] for a while due to clashes between people who attended.”

Everyone in the first division is a raw talent with no technical or mental development.

He’s right. Games are rarely on television. Jerseys and other memorabilia are not available anywhere. I recently asked a friend if she could pick me up either a Safa or Racing Beirut jersey. She eventually found one, though it took her making numerous phone calls and calling in a few favors. Lack of visibility means fans in Beirut often feel closer to a club based in east London than a team training in the adjacent neighborhood.

When I was in college, I played in a competitive Bolivian amateur league in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Teams were lined with aspiring or recently retired professional footballers. On Sunday afternoons, the local Bolivian community would set out their folding chairs and sit under the pounding sun to root for clubs wearing the kits for their hometown teams.

I asked my friend Hussein why the Lebanese professional league can’t get fans out to a match as effectively as a replica Bolivian league.

“I would assume because they feel connected to that team, either because that is where they come from or some other unknown reason,” he told me. Lebanese may have felt that, briefly, in the 90s and early 00s, and again when Lebanon’s national team was making a run for the World Cup. He recalled the day of the 2-1 win over South Korea. “On that day, life, our schedules, and our conversations all seemed to revolve around that one big game and it was a nice feeling,” he said. “It was however, a rare example.”