Lebanon is a country in the Middle East and it is home to around 6 million nationals. It has a complex and unique religious and political system based on confessionalism. In short, political seats in the Parliament are shared by the 18 recognized religious communities that can be clustered under three main groups: Muslims, Christians and other minorities. On April 13th, 1975 a brutal 15-year-long civil war began in Lebanon. It officially ended in 1990… but without really ending. While the fighting, killing and bombing stopped, many Lebanese still live in constant fear due to the continuous sectarian violence.
To better understand the tension between the different religious communities, one can focus on the country’s most popular sport, football, where political and religious interventions are strongly present. Football is, therefore, a reflection of the country’s complex confessionalism system.
The lack of funding by the Lebanese government and the absence of a sustainable system of broadcasting and ticketing revenues mean that the clubs find themselves affiliated with businessmen seeking popularity for political reasons. Certain clubs are seen as the representatives of certain political parties and, thus, certain religious identities. Al Ansar team was, and still is, the representative of the country’s Sunna. Racing Beirut is the Orthodox Christians’ go-to team, Al-Safa club is linked to the Druze community while Al-Ahed are both politically and financially linked to the Hezbollah party, the Shia representative. Al-Ahed’s management constantly denies their affiliation to Hezbollah as it might cause more harm than good.
Conflict enters the stadium
The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 led to the increase of sectarian tension in the country, especially between the Sunna and the Shia. This bombing is considered as the most important turning point in Lebanon’s modern history. Football stadiums became the ideal place for riots and clashes. The majority of the spectators started attending matches with a clear goal in their minds: cheer for their political parties and their religious figures. Football chants were replaced by political chants.
In 2007, and under the government’s pressure, the Lebanese Football Association announced that matches will be played in empty stadiums. Spectators were no longer allowed to enter to ensure the country’s safety. Five years later, the ban was removed but the damage was already done. Clubs were struggling to bring their fans back to the stadiums. Most of the matches were played with an attendance of 500 spectators. Only one football club can attract more than ten thousand spectators. It is Al Nejmeh club; the most popular sports club in the country. Since its founding in 1945, the club has had a multi-confessional system within its structure and fans from diverse religious, political and socio-economic backgrounds such as Shia, Sunni, Orthodox, Armenian, etc.
What happened next?
In the last ten years, football in Lebanon witnessed some waves of developments. More money was brought into the game via a few businessmen. Their aim was to win a seat in the Parliament and no better way to guarantee that than sponsoring and leading the country’s top teams: Nejmeh, Ahed, Al-Ansar, etc. For example, Nabil Badr, a Lebanese businessman and the CEO of two well-known companies, became the president of Al-Ansar in February 2013. After a first failed try during the Parliament elections in 2018, Badr intensified his social work and built himself a rich football “fan base”, and in 2022, he became a Deputy in the Lebanese Parliament.
Revolution, Pandemic and Explosion: did football survive?
With an unprecedented sense of unity, on October 17th 2019, Lebanese people invaded the streets across the country calling for the downfall of the entire political and economic power structure. Few months later, in February 2020, the Covid pandemic started and then, only 6 months later, on August 4th, an explosion occurred in the Port of Beirut causing more than 200 deaths.
Impacted by this trio of sudden events, Lebanon found itself in an economic crisis. The inflation rate was 155%. All sectors got impacted including football. Investors and sponsors left the game, TV channels weren’t broadcasting the matches anymore, and players’ wages drastically decreased. Most women’s football clubs withdrew from the league… but I’ll leave this for another story!
Professionalism and infrastructure
As a consequence of the confessionalism system, the Lebanese league still lacks professionalism. Despite the money invested by businessmen and political parties, the amateur status still exists with the average salary ranging between 500$ and 2500$. Many players alternate between their football training in the afternoon and their regular jobs in the morning.
Another factor highly impacting the sport’s development is the lack of high-quality infrastructure. Most of the clubs’ training facilities are old, unequipped and used by the club’s teams as well as private academies to generate revenues. The main stadiums, such as Camille Chamoun Stadium, serve as a military base for the army.
The case of Lebanese football is very unique. Despite the overwhelming talents, the game is struggling to develop because of the country’s religious and political conflicts.
And if you understand Arabic, here’s my podcast entitled “The Super Subs: Women’s Football” dedicated to Women’s Football in the Middle East. I focus on the women’s game, but I also talk about men’s football in Lebanon!