World Cup fever beats politics in Lebanon

Flags, costumes, beers and even bakeries are out with new decorations and designs for the big event

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Short of natural disasters, nothing has been proven to interrupt the World Cup madness in Lebanon. Two Israeli wars in 1982 and 2006, Lebanon’s own civil war (1975-1990) and certainly wars taking place across the border today in Syria and Iraq did not hold back the soccer frenzy and are not silencing the vuvuzelas.

Flags, costumes, beers and even bakeries are out with new decorations and designs for the big event. The nightly news no longer starts with the security situation or the fact that Lebanon has no president. The presidential vote can wait, at least until Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Italy and others settle their scores in Rio.

Even if you are not a soccer fan, and happen to be in Lebanon, it is advised you download the games’ schedule, in anticipation of the traffic, fireworks and celebrations that have become part of the nightly ritual.

‘Blame Italy’

Lebanon has a rocky history with the World Cup. While the small Middle Eastern country has never made it to the games, and soccer is not as big of a sport as basketball or volleyball here, yet every four years the frenzy finds its way to Lebanese living rooms, coffee shops and squares despite electricity outages and heat waves.

Even the Israeli wars of 1982 and 2006 coinciding with the World Cup did not steal its thunder. Karim Emile Bitar, a Lebanese national living abroad, remembers vividly the summer of 1982 and the Israeli invasion to Lebanon as the FIFA tournament started in Spain.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Bitar quotes Charles Dickens in describing the summer of 1982. He was nine years old, and living near the demarcation line in war-torn Beirut when the Israeli army invaded on 6 June, seven days before the World Cup.

Every four years the frenzy finds its way to Lebanese living rooms, coffee shops and squares despite electricity outages and heat wave

Joyce Karam

The mood in Beirut was “apocalyptic and charged” says Bitar, forcing the family to flee to Baabdate, a neighboring town in Mount Lebanon. There, “everybody was cheerful and soccer was the only thing on their mind” he recalls, reckoning that “Lebanon is indeed a House of Many Mansions” and soccer “could help people transcend the political rivalries.”

Lebanon’s dark chapter of 1982 converging with Italy winning the World Cup then, repeated in 2006. Three days after the final game, and that Italy also won that year, Israel launched airstrikes on Beirut after Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. Bitar says the parallels between Italy’s victory and Israeli offensives, brought back the Lebanese cynicism depicted in the saying “blame the Italians.” The sentiment is still alive today as many keep one eye on Rio and another on the geopolitical situation, superstitiously and secretly hoping that Italy will not take the final game.

Coming together

Beyond the precedents of conflict and wars converging with the World Cup, Lebanon’s mania surrounding the games is bringing the Lebanese together. Germany, Brazil, Italy and Spain are the most popular teams this season, and judging by the flags stretched from Beirut to Tripoli. Even though temporarily, but the games have forced a new dynamic where many are competing with goals and car parades instead of guns and gangster squads.

The empathy and excitement over the teams also reflect a deep desire among the Lebanese to escape their current status quo of division and political paralysis, and be part of a ritual that is both unifying and admirable. In a region that is breathing chaos, dictatorships, and extremism, Lebanon’s rush to the World Cup grants a refuge and an escape from a toxic political environment.

There is a sense of belonging in the games, and ironically a level of productivity that is not seen in the Lebanese political system. Rooting for Brazil or Germany or Holland might end up in a victory, while rooting for political teams in Lebanon often ends up in disappointment and conflict.

As the games continue, the Lebanese will eagerly follow. Today, they might not have the resources to compete or fly to Brazil, but they are doing their best to be part of a global exercise in civility and competitiveness.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.