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Sectarian Violence Makes Getting in to Lebanese Soccer Games a Real Bitch

Your best bet is to arrive at the match in expensive clothes and without a beard.
March 1, 2012, 5:00am

Photo of Lebanon's Camille Chamoun Stadium by the author

The lower level of Beirut’s Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium somewhat resembles RFK Stadium in DC, or the old Shea Stadium in Queens—a dark, soulless, concrete cavern with a sticky floor that reeks of urine. Trash and discarded clothes litter the hallways and parking lot. But there’s one major difference between Lebanon’s 48,000-seat crown jewel of spectator sports and its western counterparts': It’s usually empty. Fans are barred from watching games for fears of sectarian violence.

There’s some reason for the fear. Most of the 12 teams in the Lebanese Premier League are nominally backed by political parties. For instance, Beirut’s Al Ahed club is supported by Hezbollah, the Party of God, and its jerseys carry the logo of the party's television network, Al-Manar. The league-leading Al Nejmeh club, also out of Beirut, is the country’s richest and arguably most popular team, and happens to be owned by the family of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was blown up by a car bomb on Valentine’s Day 2005. Lebanon’s many competing factions have long used football clubs to push a political agenda, and Rafik’s son Saad, who served as Prime Minister from 2009 until 2011, has himself used the game to rally support among his Sunni constituency.

The ban on spectators took effect at the start of the 2005 season following Hariri’s assassination. (Four senior Hezbollah members are currently under indictment by an international tribunal for the bombing, which killed Hariri and 21 others.) The country seems to thrive on political tension; sectarianism is drafted into the country's constitution, and cabinet positions are divided among most of the 18 officially recognized religious sects. Religious groups are in a perpetual shifting power struggle, which sometimes turns violent, even when the groups aren’t crammed next to each other in the stands of an arena.

An official from the Lebanese Football Association who wished to remain anonymous told me that the ban on spectators was lifted three months ago at the start of this season. But at a recent match between league leader Al Nejmeh and the struggling Mbarrah, scarcely 200 people were in attendance, and those fans were relegated to a small, contained area at midfield on the mezzanine level, leaving an empty section below. They did their best to be fans, banging a few drums and cheering for every Al Nejmeh goal, but the congested evening traffic outside the Beirut stadium effectively drowned them out. Players celebrated goals in front of a handful of television cameras on the sidelines. Empty seats and bright stadium lights underscored the awkwardness.

You can’t escape Lebanon’s history of war, even when you’re just trying to watch a game. Camille Chamoun Stadium is named after a Christian who was president of Lebanon from 1952 to 1958 and went on to lead a Christian militia during the 15-year civil war that started in 1975 and ravaged the country. Just outside the stadium’s eastern gates lies a Palestinian refugee camp, one of 12 in Lebanon, and to the west there’s Hafez Al Assad Road, named after the deceased Syrian dictator who sent forces into Lebanon during its civil war. The stadium, which sits on the outskirts of the Dahiyah (a southern suburb controlled by Hezbollah), was completely destroyed during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, and during much of the war the site housed refugees from across Lebanon.

Indeed, if not for a heavy Lebanese army presence, which maintains a large barracks inside, the entire sports complex would seem abandoned; it was rebuilt in 2001, but like New Orlean’s Superdome during Katrina, it is a sports stadium in name only.

Even after the ban’s repeal, only 300 to 400 fans are allowed to watch most games in person, according to Haj Ahmed Kobrosly, assistant general manager of Al Nejmeh. For low-profile games between the league’s bottom-feeders the authorities might allow 2,000 to attend. (Pre-ban attendance figures are hard to come by, but AP’s account of the 1997 Pan Arab Games did not mention a small crowd; small crowds often warrant one.)
Kobrosly says the football association and the army decide jointly how many people can attend, but that the army ultimately has the final say. "They decide at the gate [before each match] who stays out. They only keep out those who want to cause problems."

In the past, disagreements between rival fans (who are often from rival political or religious factions and prone to hating each other anyway) have been settled by brawls that sometimes lead to gunfights. It is unclear how the army decides who is likely to be unruly, but as I stood outside the gate at several matches, it seemed like fans would do their best to arrive in expensive clothes and without beards. A hundred or so young men regularly wait under the watch of army troops for the off chance that they might be let in.

The army’s serious about security: Several hours before a recent match at Camille Chamoun, I snapped a cell phone picture of a row of a dozen armored personnel carriers circling the parking lot outside and within minutes I was cuffed and stuffed into the back of a Humvee and driven to an army base down the road. I missed seeing that night's game in person, Al Nejmeh versus Al Ahed, instead watching it on a jail keeper's television with three Lebanese mukhabarat [intelligence services] agents as I waited to be bailed out. (They were rooting for Al Nejmeh.)

Hezbollah’s team, Al Ahed, took an early lead about halfway through the game, but the muted excitement from the soldiers and mukhabarat men in the room quickly wore off, and they went back to sending text messages and chain smoking. "I watch the Champions League. European teams, not this," one of the intelligence agents said. "Lebanese teams are shit." A few minutes later they switched the channel to an Egyptian soap opera.

Early last month, Al Nejmeh and Mbarrah faced off, with several hundred soldiers guarding the stadium’s razor-wired perimeter. They herded fans to the upper viewing section. "This is the first match I’ve seen in many years," a man in his mid-30s named Karim said to me on the stairs. "I am finally inside, but no one cares about our own teams here in Lebanon. If we cannot see them play, how do they expect anyone to care?"

Karim and his friends quietly took their seats along with the other subdued Al Nejmeh fans. No one was setting off any bombs or starting any fights, but not many were cheering, either, and even the soldiers didn't seem to be paying attention.