The Lebanese love for football warms my heart. The colors flying from windows, cars and street-corner stands during big tournaments like the Euro 2012 give me an emotional lift. The friendly coexistence of so many football allegiances — from England to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and my native Germany — displayed this summer has a great pull on me. And what makes it even better is if you sit in a pub in Hamra, or a mall café in Ashrafieh, and fever with the action of your team while on the next table someone roots for the Dutch or Danes with the same enthusiasm. Great fun, happy competition.
But why do the public and private sector in Lebanon get the football economy so wrong? By football economy, let it not mean the exploitation of the occasion by marketers with buy-this, win-that strategies. I am talking about the primary needs of the fan: A totem (flag, scarf) and a place to watch and eat.
Now, in a small redemption for the Lebanese private sector one has to say that today it is no problem to find a big screen — unlike the days when the over-sized Sports Café in Burj Al Ghazal was about the only place that sported them (and was unhealthily empty except during big games, which is likely why it eventually closed down). The supply of Beiruti venues where you can watch Euro 2012 today ranges from 10-foot screens in comfortable restaurants to a plasma in your nearest pasta joint.
Regrettably, these choices are not all real deals. When I sat with my black-red-gold-wearing son in one cozy restaurant on the day before the Euro opener, the friendly waitress volunteered an invitation to come back for the Euro, “but there is a LL25,000 cover charge.”
Then there was the eatery on the corner near my abode. They had hired a few 24-inch screens and had the place decked out by stringing up little flags. Pity that their stroke of decorative genius was marred by hanging the German flag upside-down, but they showed even greater foolishness when they demanded a minimum bill of LL20,000 per person. Fifty bucks for munching manakeesh while bearing with a case of football culture callowness?
So I stomped my German family fan legion of four up to the rooftop of ABC and hunkered down at a restaurant that had a giant screen, sharp-enough resolution, a fair crowd, and perfectly regular prices. Guess what? At the end of the first win by unserer Nationalmannschaft, or ‘our National Team’ as the Al Jazeera commentator yelled several times, I (expectedly) not only spent more than $50, I also decided to come back for the next two games — and happily consumed more as the German game kept improving.
What’s the moral of this musing? Simply, for you restauateurs, freedom stimulates consumption. Especially at a time when the insane cost-of-living spiral forcibly converts hordes of us average Joes into penny pinchers. Learn from the football economy that fair offers and a good atmosphere open up the most paranoid of pockets.
Now to the Lebanese football public sector economy. If the country ever wants to host a big tournament, it needs to invest now. No, not into refurbishing the stadia built for the Asian Cup finals that somehow happened here in 2000. Invest in the Lebanese team and in the national sports infrastructure of training and developing youngsters — and invest in building a culture of fair competitiveness through sports. It will do wonders for the economy overall.
Lebanon made it to the fourth round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, proving that the country has football talents, and the team can still claw farther. And being die schoenste Nebensache der Welt, roughly translated as ‘the nicest unimportant thing in the world’, football is an opportunity to think the unthinkable.
Poland and Ukraine have co-hosted Euro 2012, despite the challenges each of them faced. Half a century before the 2002 World Cup, it was exactly unthinkable for Japan and Korea to ever co-host a dinner party, let alone the world’s greatest spectator event.
It is unthinkable so think: If Lebanon were ever to succeed in co-hosting the World Cup in this century, it will not only make bigger history than even Qatar. It will absolutely need a team that is a result of long-term public sector investment in a competitive culture and great sports. Invest in the National Team today, yallah, government. Because nothing could be more embarrassing than hosting a World Cup and not make it, at least, to the second round.
THOMAS SCHELLEN is Executive’s MENA business editor