Lebanon rallying behind its football team

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BEIRUT — Ali al-Saadi gave Lebanon a 1-0 lead against South Korea and the sectarian chants echoing across Cite Sportive stadium suddenly gave way to a more hopeful cheer.

Lebanon's Ali al-Saadi (2) celebrates his goal with fans during their 2014 World Cup Asian Qualifiers match against South Korea. The country has united to support the team as it tries to reach the storied event.  Hussein Malla/Associated Press
Hussein Malla/Associated Press
Lebanon's Ali al-Saadi (2) celebrates his goal with fans during their 2014 World Cup Asian Qualifiers match against South Korea. The country has united to support the team as it tries to reach the storied event.

The roars of “Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah” – “For God’s Sake, Lebanon Come On” – filled the 60,000-seat stadium and grew louder as the team closed in on a historic 2-1 win over their favored Asian opponents.

After Lebanon completed the victory that put it on the verge of reaching the next qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup, tens of thousands of fans poured into the street waving the country’s red-and-white flags with a green cedar in the middle.

“Sports can do what religion and politics can’t, gather the Lebanese people around a common thing,” said Lebanese supporter Serge Mghames, who attended the Nov. 15 match.

The country’s population of 4 million is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druze, and every community is sensitive to anything that could tip the balance of power.

This year, those tensions were laid bare as a U.N.-backed tribunal indicted four members of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and a prominent Sunni. Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing.

Much of the trouble between the groups has spilled over into soccer. The Lebanese government banned fans from attending domestic league matches after the assassination.

The ban was rescinded in October, but it devastated soccer in the country.

The team’s success has revived the country’s interest in the sport and now fans are thinking the unthinkable. Lebanon could reach the fourth round of qualifying for the first time, but it could even reach the 2014 World Cup.

“If Lebanon qualifies for the World Cup, it will raise the status of football in Lebanon. It will improve our image,” said Abbas Atwi, who scored the winning goal against South Korea, “Everyone is working toward the Lebanese team qualifying. This is a very big opportunity for us and hopefully it will happen. It will be very important for our country.”

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