Football in Lebanon continues to be plagued by sectarian violence. The final game of last year’s Alfa One League season between Al Ahed F.C. and Nejmeh Sporting club / نادي النجمة الرياضي was played on April 15, 2018 in an empty Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium (capacity: 49,000) in Beirut surrounded by the army and its tanks. The first encounter that season between the two rivals was also considered a “high-risk” match, and was rescheduled at the last moment, at the request of the Lebanese Football Association and Internal Security Forces (ISF).
That football in Lebanon is strongly influenced by sectarian politics is a reflection of the larger Lebanese political system. All the major political parties finance teams in their communities. Al-Ahed, for example, is financially supported by Hezbollah and has a Shiite fanbase in Dahiya, the southern suburbs of Beirut. Nejmeh Sporting Club in the Ras Beirut district of west Beirut has been owned by the Sunni Hariri family for many years. Matches between Nejmeh and الصفحة الرسمية لنادي الأنصار الرياضي بيروت Al Ansar FC, the other top-team in Beirut with a fan-base in the working class Sunni district of Tarig Al-Jadideh in south Beirut, have been marred by violence since the late 1960s.
Because of this violence, from 2005-2011, all football games in Lebanon were played without spectators. After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the Council of Ministers issued a decree barring fans from attending club matches, supposedly a pre-emptive measure to avoid sectarian trouble-making. Although spectators can now attend matches, a tendency to bar audiences from football games continues.
The decision-making about when matches are labeled “high-risk,” rescheduled, or played without spectators, is far from transparent. The continued securitization of football is also hurting the league, teams, and fans. Average match attendance was 630 in the 2015-16 season and has gone down in the years since. As Fouad Hijazi, a Lebanese football player, once told Al-Jazeera: “We don’t feel like this is a match. It is as if we are training. The audience encourages us to play better.”
It is not only politics that has hurt the beautiful game in Lebanon. Globalization has done its part, as well. Lebanon’s twelve-team premier league faces stiff competition from English, Spanish and other major European football teams, whose games are broadcast live on Lebanese television. Visit a random café or shisha bar in Beirut, Saida, or Tripoli on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon and you will find many Lebanese watching FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi dashing around defenders or Cristiano Ronaldo scoring another sublime goal for Real Madrid. Games from the Alfa League One are also broadcast, but mostly ignored by fans.
Globalization has affected football in Lebanon in other ways too. In the past twenty-five years, basketball has overtaken football as the most popular sport in Lebanon. For those young Lebanese players that still want to play football, they must compete with players from around the globe who are vying for spots on the premier league’s twelve teams. There are also hardly any public spaces left to play football in Beirut and its suburbs. Most informal football fields have been transformed into parking lots, shopping malls, or construction sites.
Unsurprisingly, in 2016, Lebanon’s national team dropped in the world football association’s (FIFA) World Ranking to a near all-time low of 147 out of 206. While Lebanon recently placed 79th in the ranking, this was the result of unimpressive wins over emerging football nations like Hong Kong and North Korea. Given the trends inside Lebanon, the odds its national team will be considered competitive, at any point in the near future, are slim to none.