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United by farce

Lebanon’s public figures find ‘unity’ on the football field

by Sami Halabi

Optimists have lauded the sight of Lebanon’s politicians playing a game of football together, under the banner “we are one,” as a sign of good faith to mark the 35th anniversary of the Civil War.  But for those of us less buoyant in nature, the sight was a slap in the face. We would rather see our public figures stop playing games and start getting serious about governing the country.

The players — a mixture of ministers, members of parliament and members of the Lebanese Football Association — managed to muster “unity” for a full 30 minutes, the duration of the match.

However, once the final whistle was blown — much to the relief of Lebanon’s heavier public figures — the youngest player and only goal scorer, Phalange MP Sami Gemayel, did little to contain his contempt for the opposing team’s captain, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar.

“It seems that Ali Ammar’s defense strategy is a failure,” Gemayel was quoted as saying in the press, ostensibly alluding to the discussions over a national defense strategy currently being mulled at the National Dialogue sessions. 

Playing foul-for-foul, Ammar was quick to boot the ball back into the other end: “Our defense strategy is only directed against the Israeli enemy, and our team did not want to defeat the team of PM Hariri because he is the Prime Minister,” he retorted.

Notably absent from the game were the public, who have been banned from football matches since 2005 due to fears of sectarian violence pouring out into the streets. The irony of this, of course, is that some of the same politicians waddling haplessly across the pitch were the ones to stoke sectarian tensions in the first place.

Thus, with the stands empty, the absence of the public from the political field of play — from parliamentary committees to national dialogue sessions — was extended from the figurative to the literal.

The fact is that many of the player-politicians at last month’s “unity” match have done more to reinforce Lebanon’s sectarian divide through sports than anyone else, given that many own sporting clubs and/or interfere with appointments at the various sports federations.

And while our public figures kick out cash for personal prominence in Lebanon’s sporting arena, when it comes to supporting sports as a national institution — through the Ministry of Youth and Sports, for example — the ball gets deflated, with thread-bare funding for the ministry making it little more than a pawn in the greater struggle for power in Lebanon’s cabinet.

In front of the cameras, of course, the player-politicians told a different story. All agreed that sports needed to be encouraged in Lebanon, though as a former member of Lebanon’s national rugby league squad myself, as well as a development officer for the sport, this doublespeak looked clearly offside.

During a meeting with an adviser to a former sports minster, our team was promised only partial funding for travel expenses if Lebanon made it to the 2008 world cup finals; qualifiers would not be funded at all. When Lebanon hosted an international tournament in 2004 and the lights cut out in the middle of a game, then-President Emile Lahoud had to intervene to get them turned on again; a massive poster of Lahoud was later draped over the grandstand for the final, which Lebanon won against France.

If Lebanon’s politicians truly wanted to encourage sports in the country, they could start by giving the people access to “public” municipal sporting facilities — currently off-limits to those without the right political connections or money to pay.

It was the public who paid some $100 million to reconstruct Camille Chamoun stadium, only to be barred from its first event of the year, as the politicians played their “unity” match. Perhaps the referee should have given them all red cards at the opening whistle and consigned this self-congratulatory sham to an early shower.

SAMI HALABI is deputy editor of Executive Magazine

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Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is the director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, a development, policy, and media consulting firm. He is also the former managing editor of Executive Magazine.

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