Fouling out

How petty feuds and political bickering ruined Lebanese basketball

Sport can heal and unify a nation, as shown by Lebanese basketball club Sagesse (Hekmeh) in the late 1990s. Their green and white colors waved across the country when the club was crowned Asian Club Champion for the first (and second) time in Lebanon’s history. But sport can also have the exact opposite effect, and such is the case for Lebanese basketball today. 

Rattled by feuds and infighting, the 2012-2013 season was halted several times and eventually ended without a winner, and on July 18 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) suspended the Lebanese Basketball Federation (LBF) from international competition. Consequently, the national basketball team already in Manila was not allowed to take part in the FIBA Asian Championships. Replaced by Iraq’s national side, the Lebanese flew back to Beirut on July 21, not having made a single basket. 

Rodrigue Akl, the national team’s point guard and captain of Sagesse, was on his way to morning practice when he heard the news. “I passed by the doctor’s room, which is always the players’ hangout on international trips,” says the 25-year-old star. “The manager was there. He told me, though his face said it all, really. We were all very sad and angry, yet the biggest shock had come earlier, in Taiwan, when FIBA had first warned the LBF.”

The national team left Beirut on July 4 to play the Taiwan William Jones Cup in preparation for the all-important Asian Championship. Three-time finalist Lebanon was not a favorite for the Asian title, but there was a lot at stake. A top three spot meant qualification for the 2014 FIBA World Championship in Spain. 

“We had a very good chance of qualifying,” says Akl. “Iran was the favorite for the Asian title [and won], but countries like China and Jordan didn’t have such a strong team this year, while we had [former NBA player] Loren Woods.”

“I was at the 2010 World Championship,” saysAkl. “But I was the youngest on the team, so I only played for one and a half minutes. Today, I’m one of the senior players and I had high hopes to play a major role this time. But, well, ‘they’ killed my dream.”

Champville vs. Amchit 

To understand who ‘they’ are and the reason for the LBF’s suspension, we must go back to last May, to the league’s quarterfinal playoff games between Champville and Amchit, two of the main protagonists in this tragic tale. Based in Dick El Mehdi in Metn, Champville was Lebanon’s reigning champion. The money trail behind both teams evidence the role that politics have played beyond the sidelines.

Most of Champville’s annual budget of $1.7 million stems from four main investors, Wadih al Absi, Elias Bou Saab, Jozef Hgoussoub and Ghassan Rizk, each investing $300,000. “Four different people, yet all with the same political color,” laughed Champville board member and press attaché Jad Deaibess. The orange on Champville’s jerseys reflects the color of the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) flag.

The game planThere are some 400 to 500 basketball teams in Lebanon. Most of them are quite small and play on an amateur level. There are ten professional outfits that compete in LBF or BankMed League. They have a combined budget of over $11 million. Less than the budget is generated through the sales of tickets, advertisement and broadcasting rights. One of the main grievances between Lebanon’s professional teams, their sponsors and the LBF is that the latter is largely run by representatives of the amateur clubs.

Basketball is so far the only sport in Lebanon to be broadcast live on prime time television. The rights to the 2012- 2013 season were sold for $350,000, which is evenly divided over the clubs, after the LBF takes its cut. The latter moreover takes a cut on ticket sales, while every club member pays a federation membership fee. Finally, the LBF receives an annual contribution from the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which this year amounted to some $300,000, as the Lebanese national team was set to play the FIBA Asian Championship.

The main part of the clubs’ budgets stems from individual sponsors and political parties. As basketball is broadcast live, many politicians perceive it as an excellent platform for exposure. Basketball is arguably the only Lebanese sport in which an athlete is able to make a decent living, and more. Average salaries amount to some $3,000 to $4,000 a month, while the league’s top players may earn up to $20,000 a month. According to Robert Paoli, who played basketball on a national level before the game entered the professional era, the LBF League cannot be considered healthy. “All professional clubs depend on an external financial source for their survival, while there is no tangible return on investment,” he says. “That makes them vulnerable.” Take what happened to Zahle-based club Anibal. Backed by Wadih al Absi, the team in the 2011-2012 season ended as runners-up in the league, while it won the Lebanese Cup. Following a disagreement with the club’s management, Absi withdrew his money for the 2012-2013 season and took star player Rodrigue Akl with him to Sagesse. Anibal promptly ended last in the league and were relegated.

Absi is a reoccurring name in Lebanese basketball. He is the owner of the First Lebanese and First Kuwaiti construction firms that, among other projects, helped build the $750 million American embassy complex in Baghdad. Two years ago, Absi sponsored Anibal Zahleh, which promptly finished second in the season and won the Lebanese and Asian Cups.

In the 2011-2012 season, however, Absi withdrew from Anibal and put his money into Champville. In the 2012-2013 season, Absi not only bankrolled Champville but also Sagesse with almost $1 million, until the Lebanese Forces took over in early 2013. In addition, Absi also paid part of the annual budget of Beijeh and Antranik, and even coughed up the national team’s budget to travel to the Philippines. Absi was not available to comment on the reasons for his generosity, but it is widely believed among those with whom Executive spoke to be related to the planned (but postponed) 2013 parliamentary elections, with either Absi or a close ally of his expected to run.

While Champville, presided over by Jad Kahwaji, the son of the Lebanese Armed Forces commander Jean Kahwaji, is linked to the FPM, newly promoted Amchit is closely connected to President Michel Sleiman, whose son acts as the club’s honorary president. Its annual budget of an estimated $1.3 million is provided by a group of local businessmen and, reportedly, one Gulf investor. As every Lebanese person knows, the FPM’s founding father, Michel Aoun, and Sleiman can hardly be called best friends.

26 seconds

On May 5, Champville won the third playoff game and led the best-of-five series by 2 to 1. Hence, Amchit had to win the upcoming fourth match to stay in the race. It was scheduled for the next day, May 6, at 10:30 pm. Two hours before the match, however, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who is linked to President Michel Sleiman, asked LBF President Robert Abdallah to postpone the game due to “security issues.” 

“It is strange there could be any security issues, as Champville supporters were not allowed to enter the Amchit stadium,” says Jihad Salameh. Salameh is not a LBF board member, yet as Secretary General of the Mont LaSalle Sports Club he is regarded as one of the main power brokers in Lebanese basketball and sports in general. Salameh also heads the FPM’s Youth and Sports program.

“I don’t know what security concerns the minister referred to,” says Dany Hakim, Amchit’s director of basketball. “You should ask him.” The 32-year-old is one of the sponsors behind Amchit, the club he has supported since childhood. He was also an LBF board member, but resigned earlier this year following the alleged embezzlement of $131,250 by LBF President Robert Abu Abdallah. The latter denied the accusations and appointed an auditor.

“I did send the LBF an official protest regarding the third game, as it ended in a brawl, while the Champville supporters used abusive language,” says Hakim who, prior to the playoffs, had requested the LBF, in vain, to appoint international referees. “The LBF board should have had a meeting and responded to my protest, but never did.” 

With 26 seconds to go in the third game and Champville leading by five points, there was indeed some agitation between the players and staff during the third playoff, while the crowd chanted. Yet, looking at the images, it is clear nothing major happened. It was a matter of words, not fists, and as such not an unusual scene in basketball anywhere in the world. Interestingly, Hakim himself appeared to be one of the most agitated people on court. 

Many insiders believe Charbel acted on “special request” from Sleiman when he called the LBF to postpone the fourth game. It is thought that Amchit aimed to buy time to prepare for their must-win game. Some even whisper Amchit aimed to play the game only after Champville returned from playing in the West-Asian club championship (WABA Cup) which took place from May 11 till May 18 in Iraq. 

Unfair game

Following the minister’s interference on May 6, the LBF postponed the game until May 7 at 4:45 pm. “We arrived early afternoon, but the Amchit stadium was closed,” says Champville’s Jad Deaibess. “The game was then again postponed till 10 pm. We waited in the bus for about two hours, surrounded by Amchit fans, but the stadium remained closed.”

“The LBF had told us the fourth game would be played on May 7, but not at what time,” Hakim says. “On May 7, they only told us at 1:00 pm that we had to play at 4:45 pm, but we could not prepare the team on such short notice! We suggested [we] play on May 8. Instead the LBF postponed it till 10 pm that same evening, yet failed to inform us in a proper manner. They should have called, faxed or emailed us. Instead, we were told by [Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation]. So, we decided not to play.”

Conforming to the rules, the LBF handed Amchit a 20-0 loss for failing to appear. Consequently, Champville won the series 3-1 and, following its win in the WABA Cup on May 18, went on to play the semifinals against Sporting. However, Amchit had not yet given up the fight just yet. It sued the LBF over the 20-0 loss, arguing the club had not been properly informed.

“Amchit had a point,” says sports journalist Tony Khalil. “On May 7, there had been a meeting with all parties involved at the Ministry of Interior, including LBF President Robert Abdallah. There it was decided that the game would be played on May 8. Later that day, however, the LBF changed its mind and failed to properly inform Amchit.”

“One main problem of Lebanese basketball is that the federation is run by absolute amateurs,” he continued. “Another one is that, because of the politics involved, everything is polarized and no one is willing to compromise. It’s a sad story.”

Against the clock 

Following a judicial decision to temporarily freeze the semifinal series between Champville and Sporting, which then stood at 1-1, the LBF on May 30 announced the league would be halted until the court’s final decision. “The situation is very dangerous with all the interference, which could lead to the banning of Lebanon from international competitions,” said LBF President Abdallah at a press conference. “While we were trying to find a way to finish the league quickly, the situation has now become critical for the national team in their bid to qualify for the fourth time to the World Championship.”

On June 6, the court decided in Amchit’s favor. As the club had not been properly informed, it said, not only should the disputed fourth game between Champville and Amchit be played again, but so should the two semifinal matches that had already been played between Champville and Sporting. The LBF appealed.

The national team returns from Manila following their disqualificationThe national team returns from Manila following their disqualification (Photo: Daily Star)

 

Although Amchit reportedly offered Champville a win without playing so that the league could run its course, the LBF on June 16 sent a complaint to FIBA. Some people have asked themselves why did the LBF turn to FIBA? They include Hakim and national team coach Ghassan Sarkis. 

“Couldn’t they have waited until August 12 [the end of the Asian Championship] to address the issue with FIBA?” Sarkis says upon his return from the Philippines. “It wasn’t innocent at all to raise the issue, and although the clubs [Amchit and Mouttahed] made a huge mistake by filing a lawsuit… it wasn’t the first time in our sports history. I’m deeply sorry because we have lost a golden chance to qualify [for the FIBA World Championship.]”

Perhaps the LBF, who couldn’t be reached for a reaction, wanted to play hardball and finish the issue once and for all. On June 28, FIBA replied. It offered the LBF a one-week grace period and demanded that all court cases be withdrawn and its decisions annulled, while also stipulating that all professional clubs sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) aimed at establishing an appeal commission within the LBF to avoid future court cases. 

“We refused to sign the MoU,” says Hakim. “We don’t have a problem with Champville. We have a problem with the LBF. If we trusted them, we would have signed. Now we told them: ‘first show us an appeals court, then we’ll sign.”

Four clubs (Amchit, Byblos, Sporting and Mouttahed) refused to sign the MoU. They are the same four clubs that contested the LBF elections, which were overwhelmingly won in November 2012 by FPM-backed candidates. It is not a coincidence either that all these clubs are supported by political powers opposed to the FPM. 

One week after the FIBA deadline passed, a Lebanese appeals court decided the Amchit case in favor of the LBF. Yet this was not enough for FIBA. It seems FIBA wanted to end the lawsuitphenomenon once and for all. It gave the Lebanese clubs one last chance to sign the proposed MoU within 24 hours, yet to no avail. 

The FIBA’s final letter, dated July 18, emphasized the LBF’s suspension had not been taken lightly. “It was indeed approved by the FIBA Central Board due to events of the utmost gravity whereby one club has been able, with external political support, to disrupt entirely the smooth running of the Lebanese National Championship. It has also been able to obtain a decision by a state civil court cancelling technical and sporting decisions taken by your federation…Your federation was not and still is not properly armed to face political interferences and solve sporting disputes within its own structures.”

“We suspended the LBF, because we cannot accept political interference in sports,” says FIBA Secretary General Hagop Khajirian. “That’s not just the case for basketball, but for all sports. We had previously heard about political interference, mainly by Lebanon’s minister of interior, but the reason to suspend the LBF was the court case. A sports federation needs to be strictly autonomous. Decisions can be questioned at an appeals commission within the federation and, ultimately, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. We trust the LBF to change its statute, which should happen in early September. As soon as that is done, we are ready to lift the suspension.”

“Every revolution is for the better,” says Hakim with a wry smile. “Of course, it is sad for the national team, but now we have the chance to create a proper appeal commission and a truly professional league. In the end, the national team will profit from that too.” 

It remains to be seen if the national players share his optimism. Sure, an appeal commission will be an improvement for a smoothly running league. And normally, it should not be too hard to find three or five wise heads, who can cut the knot in case of conflict. But this is Lebanon. Appointing those arbiters could very well become the next arena for yet another endless fight over sect and political color. 

“You often hear older people in Lebanon complain about the country, but I always stayed positive,” says Rodrigue Akl. “But, I must say, this time I was hugely disappointed and I actually looked into playing elsewhere — Brazil maybe, as I have a Brazilian passport. But, well, for now I have a four-year contract with Sagesse, so I’m not going anywhere. Let’s just hope the problem gets fixed and serves as a lesson so that it will not happen again.”

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.

Top