Lebanon, A House Divided (Talking Sports This Time, not Politics)

Flags hanging from balconies. Flags attached to car windows and flapping in the wind. The grocery store sells tissue boxes with your favorite team. And plastic plates and cups in team colors. Even potato chips flavored with your favorite country (Eww. And South African potato chips? I kid you not. Did the supermarket just pull them out of storage after four years?)

Who are you rooting for? My kids’ school organized a recess World Cup mini-tournament. My son played for Spain, but they were knocked out in the second round. Germany was the winner, trouncing Brazil in a stunning 8-0 game. EA Sports, the maker of the FIFA 2014 video game, ran a simulation on their game. Germany again, edging out Brazil in a 2-1 final.

Judging from the number of German flags blowing around town these days, many Lebanese would be happy with a German win.

Given that Lebanese are huge soccer fans, it’s surprising that you never hear anything about Lebanon’s team. I started to wonder if there even was one. There is a 48,000-seat multi-purpose stadium along the airport highway in Beirut, but I’ve never heard of any game of any sport being played there. Good old Wikipedia filled me in: “The Cedars” as the Lebanese team is affectionately known, does indeed exist.

And the last time I could find an online record of them playing a game in the stadium was June 2012, which was just days after I moved here. It was a World Cup qualifying game against Qatar. The stadium sold out, but to no avail – Lebanon lost 0-1 (ending up last in their group, under Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Qatar).

The Cedars are currently ranked 114 in the world, up from a dreary 154 in 2010, near the end of its 5-year ban on fans in the stadiums.

If Lebanon’s national team has a lackluster history, its national league is worse. During the extended ban on attendance at the stadium, ticket sales evaporated (unsurprisingly), advertising revenue subsequently plummeted, and the teams were going broke. Politics (and by extension, religion) stepped up to fill the vacuum, and now each team in the national league is affiliated with a political party, which in turn are affiliated with religious sects.

So given the weakness of the national team and league, everyone gets behind someone else.

We saw it when we arrived and the European Championship League finals took place. Young Lebanese men more excited for an Italy win than my soccer-loving Italian husband. Maybe it’s no surprise, given how sectarian the country is, that there’s no single team that enjoys support from the majority of Lebanese soccer fans.

Or maybe the spreading of the love is because the Lebanese are some of the world’s top globetrotters. There are an estimated 6 to 7 million Brazilians of Lebanese descent. Between Brazil hosting, Brazil being one of the best teams in the world, and Brazil having more Lebanese than Lebanon itself, you can imagine that Brazil is another favorite for Lebanese soccer fans (as well as for The Economist, bookies in London, statisticians at Deutsche Bank, and many other forecasters).

Our family could be a microcosm of the Lebanese society. Support split amongst parties, loyalties challenged and ever-shifting. My husband and I are nationalistic in our support, respectively rooting for Italy (who is said to have a 1.7% chance of winning) and USA (who had such a small chance of winning that it didn’t even make the charts). Our daughter is rooting for Ecuador (where she was born) our son for Brazil (admittedly predictable, but it was his favorite team in 2010 also). We all cheer for Honduras as well, simply because that’s where we lived last (we’re dreading the Honduras-Ecuador game though… who to support?).

From the cars around town, it’s clear we’re not the only house divided.

And yet the flags hang in peace next to each other. And for now, peace reigns in our house as well.

Let’s see how long it lasts….