Arabic Language Blog

Once Upon a World Cup in Lebanon Posted by on Jun 24, 2010 in Culture

Doubtless this period of time we will see a lot of posts on the World Cup, and I think that is a wonderful thing. The 2010 FIFA World Cup is being held on African soil for the first time in its history, and South Africa have been chosen as hosts. It’s the most widely watched sporting event on the planet, and it does a wonderful job of bringing people together from all over the world. While growing up in Lebanon there were a few things as exciting as the watching the World Cup, and this time it is no different.

Unfortunately Lebanon has never fielded a team that qualified for the World Cup. But football is by far the most popular sport in the country, and the absence of a Lebanese team from the competition neither dulls our excitement nor dampens our enthusiasm. To the contrary, in fact, the country is always gripped by football fever during every World Cup. The time of the World Cup is not only exciting, but it is perhaps the only time when talk of politics, pop-culture, and the economy part people’s lips, and their attention shifts squarely to focus on football. This spirit can be felt in the streets of Beirut where large flags of competing nations are draped across buildings, and every citizen has suddenly found a vested interest a team that he or she will passionately support, watch, and defend.

The loyalties of the Lebanese are usually split, with the most ardent support going to Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Italy, and to a lesser extent England, France, and Spain. Cars are commonly decorated with the colours of the competing nations and, depending on the outcomes of games, it is common to see convoys of cars touring the streets of Beirut, waving their flags and honking as they celebrated their adopted team’s achievement.

To those watching it was not a game, but an epic battle between what they considered good and evil, socialism and capitalism, working class and the upper glass. Into the fabric of each game a greater and complex narrative was woven by every fan. It was Greek Tragedy and the theater was the pitch.

My very first World Cup was Italia 90, famous for Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun Dorma during the opening ceremony. It was towards the end of the Lebanese civil war; a very difficult time for our country having experienced more than 15 years of civil war. I remember for those few weeks the sounds of war being drowned by the sounds of football. And during games the only shouts heard across–usually warring–streets where those of fans, barking out instructions towards their televisions, gesticulating and remonstrating with their adopted players. It was not uncommon for people to gather on the street to watch a game. During electricity outages, those with generators would start them and bring their TVs to the street where a healthy crowd of people would gather to watch. We were four of five hours ahead of Italy, but I could stay up late during this time. Bed time suddenly had no meaning, and doing my homework could wait.

Italia 90 saw the emergence of one of the finest players in the history of the sport, Roberto Baggio of Italy, who scored a magnificent and memorable goal against what was the Czechoslovakian team at the time. His famous hairstyle, not favoured by me, surely influenced a generation of youngsters to follow suit. Despite Baggio’s hair style I decided that Italy would be my preferred country, and sure enough, to this day, I still support them. Baggio’s display had left quite an impression on me. Baggio and Italy would go on to the Semi final where they were defeated by Diego Maradona’s Argentina on penalties. It was time to cash-in my emotional investment, and a victory against England for third place did little to dull the pain of their defeat against Argentina.

I imagine I was not the only who felt this way during the World Cup. I’m sure people in every country had a similar experience in their own way. I did often wonder, however, and still do, what it would be like if Lebanon qualified.

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