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Politics, Pele and pitches: Beirut, Lebanon

Our photographers from Lebanon are Dr. Nadine Marie Moacdieh, Dr. Danyel Reiche, and Dr. Issam Srour, professors at the American University of Beirut. They took photos exploring Lebanese football culture in Beirut, the story of Lebanon’s most popular team Nejmeh SC and the lack of investment in football facilities and infrastructure in Lebanese football.

Politics, Pele and pitches: Beirut, Lebanon

Our photographers from Lebanon are Dr. Nadine Marie Moacdieh, Dr. Danyel Reiche, and Dr. Issam Srour, professors at the American University of Beirut. They took photos exploring Lebanese football culture in Beirut, the story of Lebanon’s most popular team Nejmeh SC and the lack of investment in football facilities and infrastructure in Lebanese football.

What does football reveal about Lebanon as a country?

Football in Lebanon is a reflection of the country’s complex demographic fabric. Most of the clubs have sectarian and/or political affiliations. One of the few clubs that broke this rule, to a certain extent, was Nejmeh SC. Since its inception in 1945, the club has had fans from various socio-economic, political, and religious backgrounds. Given the location of its home ground, Nejmeh SC attracted fans and players from the diverse nearby Ras Beirut district and subsequently from all parts of the country. With time, the club lost some of this diversity and was eventually bought by the leader of one of the powerful political groups. Ironically, there is still a dichotomy and contrast between a big segment of the fans and the club administration.

The Beirut Municipal Stadium is one of the home grounds of the national team and a place to hang out for the residents of the densely populated Tariq El Jdide district. Similar to other Lebanese stadiums, it serves as a military base for the army. Unfortunately, this stadium is not open to all local teams. For example, despite being the country’s most popular team, Nejmeh SC has not been able to play there for over 10 years because of clashes between the fans and the residents of the district. Sadly, there are talks of the stadium being relocated to another neighborhood to allow for a giant parking project.

What is the relationship between Pele and Nejmeh SC?

This photo at the Nejmeh SC training ground depicts the fading memory of a historic moment for Lebanon, perhaps the country’s most important football event ever. In April 1975, Pele visited Lebanon as part of an international football tour and played an exhibition match with Nejmeh SC against a team comprised of players from various French universities. After World War II, Lebanon developed more than many other countries in the region, and Beirut was often called “Paris of the Middle East”. While Pele’s visit underlined the modernisation of the country, it also marked the end of what would later be called the Golden Age of Lebanon. One week after Pele’s visit, violence erupted in Beirut, leading to the start of a long and nasty civil war that lasted 15 years.

What is holding back Lebanese professional football?

Lack of infrastructure explains, to a large extent, the gap in performance between Lebanese football and the second most popular sport in the country, basketball, which requires less space and has smaller team sizes, attracting more investment. The Lebanese national basketball team reached the FIBA World Championship three consecutive times (2002, 2006, and 2010). On the other hand, the Lebanese football team has only once come close to reaching the World Cup (in 2014). Not all football teams have access to a full-size field, and most clubs do not even own the field they play on. Nejmeh SC leases their ground from the Beirut Municipality. The field, which is at risk of being sold to rich real estate investors, is overused: the club’s senior, junior, U-18, U-16, and U-14 teams all practice and play games there, usually in the afternoon and evening. In the morning, the field is often used by private football academies.

What role does football play in Lebanon and Lebanese society?

Lebanese people will find a way to play football anywhere. A family outing or a gathering of friends will easily end up in a game of football that combines young and old, boy and girl, Christian and Muslim. It does not matter if the goal is broken or if the net is torn: if there is a spherical object and a bit of space to run then there is ample space for a game of football.

The only problem, sadly, is that finding any sort of space to play in is becoming more and more difficult. It is all too easy for wealthy and influential investors to obtain approval to build in green spaces or even on beaches. It is a longstanding travesty in this country that the once-glorious coastline, over the years, has been sold and transformed into private resorts. Public beach areas are increasingly rare and, for the large part, poorly maintained. The high-rise buildings encircle but do not yet encroach upon the beach; however, there are already plans for more such buildings even closer to the beach. There is a lack of public support for preserving areas for football, and government officials are only too happy to make way for more buildings. It is always a painful experience for a Lebanese of a certain age to go back through his/her childhood neighborhood and see new buildings where once there was a football pitch.

What is the future for Lebanese football?

There are hardly any public spaces left to play football in Beirut. Most informal football fields have been transformed into parking lots, shopping malls, and construction sites. Beirut used to be significantly different from other cities in the Arabian Peninsula; however, it is looking increasingly similar. Most public spaces are gone, serving corporate instead of public interests. The need to join private football academies to be able to play football is changing the socio-economic structure of Lebanese football.

This is the current state of street football: the few remaining spaces are artificial pitches that one has to rent. This development will most likely change the socio-economic basis of Lebanese football. So far, many players in the top league and national team come from less-privileged backgrounds, and football provided a way for them to move up in society (particularly if they were transferred to clubs abroad). In the future, professional players might come more from a middle and upper class background, given the lack of public spaces and the spread of private football academies in the country.

However, even the poorest neighborhoods will still find some way to have a football pitch squeezed in. In addition to boots and a ball, the other essential equipment is the football kit of a major European team (cheap replicas are available on most street corners). It would be rare to find a game of football without seeing at least one Barcelona, Manchester United, or Bayern Munich shirt. Everybody follows the main European leagues and the Champions League, picking their teams and following games as passionately as any other person in Barcelona, Manchester, or Munich. The Lebanese football league, however, tends to fall by the wayside. For the Lebanese, world (and especially European) football reigns supreme. It is unfortunate that the Lebanese team can rarely rally that kind of support to their cause.

What is the role of the American University of Beirut in Lebanese football?

The American University of Beirut (AUB), which this year celebrated its 150th anniversary, has long been a center for athletic activity in Lebanon’s capital. AUB has often been a pioneer in the Lebanese sports sector: the history of basketball in Lebanon started at AUB, and recently the first female rugby team in the country was established at the university. Initially even competing in the Lebanese football league, today AUB’s Green Field represents one of the few remaining full-size football pitches in Beirut. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, and, as is the case in this image, kids come to AUB to play football. English Premier League club Manchester City organised this particular camp. For countless other football-crazy kids in Beirut, however, the luxury of a full kit and expert coaching remains a distant dream.