During the noisy aftermath of a basketball game in Beirut a couple of years ago, I asked my Lebanese companion when the sport had become popular in Lebanon. "When we discovered we could make it sectarian," he joked.
Now, the occasion has again arisen to contemplate themes of sectarianism and athletics in the context of a short documentary film titled Lebanon Wins the World Cup, originally released in 2015 but currently available for free streaming on Vimeo for the duration of this year's World Cup competition.
Football and war
The title is indeed fitting; after all, if you've ever experienced a World Cup in Lebanon, you're likely to have assumed the Lebanese won the whole darn thing based on the amount of horn-honking, flag-waving, and general ruckus that transpires. This is particularly the case following a win by Germany or Brazil, both of which play host to sizable Lebanese populations.
The film's synopsis reads: "On the eve of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, two former enemies from the Lebanese civil war prepare to support their favourite team Brazil. Can the tournament unite them despite everything that's gone wrong?"
A couple of years ago, I asked my Lebanese companion when the sport had become popular in Lebanon. 'When we discovered we could make it sectarian,' he joked
The duo consists of Edward Chamoun, a former fighter with the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, and Hassan Berri, a Shia Muslim who fought with the Lebanese Communist Party for several years of the conflict, which lasted from 1975-1990.
The film spotlights their individual reflections on life and war, and then follows them as they meet in Beirut to root for Brazil. The answer to the question of whether or not the tournament can unite them isn’t difficult to predict.
Both men, it turns out, had supported Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, which took place in the middle of the Lebanese civil war and overlapped with Israel’s summer invasion of Lebanon, a devastating affair that killed some 20,000 people, the majority of them civilians.
The film titled Lebanon Wins the World Cup was originally released in 2015 but currently available for free streaming on Vimeo (screen grab/Vimeo)
Recalls Berri: "Your country is being invaded, it's under attack. And imagine, all I could think about was a game." Hooking up a car battery to a small television, he and his comrades tuned into the Italy-Brazil match, at which point the bombing suddenly stopped: "It was as if the Israeli Army wanted to watch the match too."
Lebanon clearly didn’t win that World Cup, and neither did Brazil, with victory instead going to the Italians - who incidentally also won the 2006 World Cup, which concluded a few days prior to the launch of Israel’s bloody 34-day assault on Lebanon. Some might therefore view Italy’s failure to qualify this year as reassuring.
'From the other side'
Explaining his trajectory as a militant, Berri says: "I was fighting for social justice, for the poor. To build a real country, a secular country. But I found myself shooting at Christians. In Christian areas. And most of those people were probably poor, just like me."
This would no doubt appear to be a far more productive analysis than that offered by Chamoun, who announces that he "knew it was a war between Muslims and Christians" and that "it was about our survival. Either Christians existed in Lebanon or they didn’t".
Never mind mid-war headlines like "Lebanon's Christians plan for supremacy despite Muslim majority" - or the role of right-wing Christian forces in complicating the existence of other categories of human in Lebanon, as in the 1982 Israeli-backed massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen of up to several thousand people in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
From a political perspective, football also offers the ruling classes a handy opportunity to distract the masses from their misery
Despite Berri being "from the other side", Chamoun claims to have "really enjoyed conversing" with him during the match: "We connected, and found common ground. He’s an open guy, not racist or sectarian"- an interesting statement, to be sure, coming from someone sporting a Lebanese Forces cross.
“After all these years of war," Chamoun says, “one football game made us forget everything.” But while this may be a convenient message for a 20-minute documentary, forgetting is not exactly an option for many of those affected by the Lebanese civil war and for whom the past is still very much present.
World Cup: happy or distracted
Consider the predicament of surviving family members of the estimated 17,000 missing persons from the civil war period, who - having been denied any sort of information as to the fates that befell their loved ones - have not been able to even commence the grieving process that would enable them to eventually move on psychologically.
A Lebanese football fan wearing the colours of Argentina reacts as she watches the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between France and Argentina, at a sports cafe in the capital Beirut on 30 June, 2018 (AFP)
A Lebanese humanitarian worker in Beirut, for example, once told me of a mother he interviewed whose four children had disappeared from Sabra and Shatila during the war, never to return. The woman, he said, continued to keep her youngest son's schoolbag in its spot behind the door, decades after the conflict had ended. Needless to say, the Brazilian football team has little to offer her in terms of emotional recovery and forgiveness.
Actively thwarting the need for closure, of course, is the Lebanese state, which happens to be composed of many of the very same warlords who were never made to answer for their wartime crimes and thus possess a keen interest in burying the past while maintaining the sectarian discourse. Unfortunately for them, forcible amnesia is easier said than done.
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Reflecting on football's popularity in Lebanon, Berri comments: "The Lebanese people live under extreme pressure. Psychological, social, moral and economic pressure. So the World Cup is an occasion to be happy and release all this stress."
From a political perspective, football also offers the ruling classes a handy opportunity to distract the masses from their misery - although the Beirut government seems to have dropped the ball slightly on that front this year by banning non-Lebanese flags in the city during the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Lebanon Wins the World Cup has racked up various film festival accolades as well as praise from veteran Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk as "one of the best docs on the Lebanon war". One might be forgiven, however, for thinking the film falls a bit short of the goal.
- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Lebanese fans watch the Russia 2018 World Cup quarter-final football match between Brazil and Belgium in the Ersal district, southern Beirut, on 6 July 2018 (AFP)