Pitch battles

Observations on football

Ten minutes before the start of the Lebanese football season and the 60,000-capacity Beirut Sports City Stadium was silent. A few years ago tens of thousands of raucous fans would have been here to see Lebanon's most popular club, Nejmeh, take on Shabab al-Sahel. Now the only sound comes from the armed soldiers inside the stadium. The stands are empty as the game kicks off because spectators are banned from attending Lebanon's volatile football matches. The authorities fear age-old rivalries could blow apart the country's fragile peace.

"Football is a little dangerous," admits Rahif Alameh, general secretary of the Lebanese Football Association. "The prime minister directly interfered in this case because of the election."

The ban began last season when, in the aftermath of last year's war with Israel, the ministry of the interior ruled that Lebanon's internal ceasefire couldn't survive highly divisive football derbies, where riots between fans are common. This season the fans were to return to their seats but thanks to the ongoing impasse between pro- and anti-Syrian politicians over who is to be the new president, the decision was taken to keep spectators out.

The authorities have good reason to fear Lebanon's football rivalries. The league mirrors society's sectarian tensions. Worse, political leaders fund rival teams. Al-Ansar, traditionally a Sunni team and the Lebanese champions, was funded by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. After his assassination, the Hariri family continued the tradition, as well as giving money to Racing Beirut, a Christian team, and Nejmeh, a Sunni-run club with a majority Shia fan base. The Druze community funds Safa and Hezbollah has links with al-Ahed.

Handing me my accreditation, Rahif explains: "Football for the Shia community is very important. The problem is Hezbollah."

Al-Ahed's general secretary, Haj Mohammed Assi, is Hezbollah's sports officer. He at first denies that Hezbollah funds the club, or even has an influence over its running, but his wall heaves with portraits of Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah. "They help us sometimes," he later admits, pointing at a photo of the al-Ahed squad posing with him, Nasrallah and the 2005 Lebanese cup they had won. "But Ahed isn't only a Shia club. We have Sunnis, Christians and Armenians here."

"Of course they get help from Hezbollah," says Rahif. "They have two pitches, a swimming pool and are building an indoor gym for the winter." Racing Beirut, meanwhile, train on a sand pitch with no nets at a local school.

But the first weekend of the season passed without serious incident and not all the fans missed the game. Hundreds lined rooftops of buildings and a busy overpass nearby.

"It's dangerous; there are mad drunk drivers driving past," shouts Jeffery, a Sagesse fan clinging to a crash barrier. "I've supported this team for 40 years. Can I stop now? How can I stop now?"

With the presidential election postponed again until the end of November, he'll be watching from the motorway for a while yet.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?