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?

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.