Even football got mired in Lebanon’s political and economic crisis
II SHOULD HAVE was a time of national excitement. Lebanon have never reached the World Cup finals before, but their national team have reached the third round of qualifying for next year’s tournament in Qatar. Last month, they won a crucial victory against Syria. Before two matches this month, against Iran and the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), the Cedars looked like they had a shot at making the playoffs. Instead of cheering, however, the contests recalled just how badly what has gone wrong in a country mired in political and economic crises.
Start with the timing. The matches could not be prime time in the evening, as it was not possible to guarantee enough electricity to keep the stadium lit. Then FIFA, the world’s football governing body, banned fans from the stands, citing security. Some would have found it difficult to make the trip anyway, as oil prices have increased tenfold in the past two years.
Then there was the place. Beirut’s national stadium was damaged by a massive explosion in the city’s port last year. Instead, qualifying was played in Sidon, 40 km (25 miles) to the south, in an arena sometimes referred to as the Martyr Rafik Hariri Stadium. So Lebanon played against Iran (and lost) on land named after a prime minister whose murder is largely blamed on Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
Football is often political in other ways, but the matches in Lebanon have taken this maxim to the extreme. Some Lebanese accused Hezbollah supporters of encouraging the other side. Others posted photos of the Iranian team carrying bulky suitcases into Beirut airport, believing the bags might be filled with military gear rather than football gear.
Five days later, the stands were empty again for Lebanon’s 1-0 loss to the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Beirut last month after the Lebanese information minister criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, loyal to the Saudis, told its citizens not to visit Lebanon.
The collapse of the Lebanese economy prompted many citizens to leave. Athletes are no exception. With wages quickly becoming worthless, several star footballers scrambled to Jordan.
Even watching their favorite teams is now a challenge for Lebanese fans, many of whom like to follow the European Champions League on TV. This summer, however, far fewer could afford a $ 75 membership – double the monthly minimum wage. Others found themselves sitting in the dark at kickoff.
Few expect things to get better anytime soon. The cabinet, formed in September after a year of stalemate, has not met for more than a month due to political disputes. The elections scheduled for the spring point to more paralysis. As for the Cedars, they drag the United Arab Emirates in the race for a place in the play-offs. At least their next qualifying game, in January, will be played against a much less controversial rival: South Korea.
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Pitch dark”