How Lebanon wins the world cup

local resident appropriates public square to support Germany

So 32 nations are preparing for a blast, but what do you do when your team won’t be playing? Lebanon didn’t qualify to enter the World Cup this year. In fact, it never has. But since April, an exuberant fervour has been surging steadily towards a crescendo. This scrap of a country is not going to be done out of a chance to jump on a bandwagon, wave flags, chant in the street and act like its all a matter of life and death – when, for once in Lebanon, it isn’t.

Of course, if your own colours aren’t out there then you have to go for second best. I still remember the 1998 final when Brixton, London, watched fairly unmoved as France beat Brazil in its only win to date. The house of the Malagasy family next-door nearly left the ground and the next day their little shop was closed, and on the window was scrawled the simple explanation, “We won”.

So Madagascar, which has also never qualified, will be routing for France again as a former colony, and you might think Lebanon would have similar sympathies with its former protectorate power. But in reality you see relatively little support for France, when you consider that the national flag used to be the tricolore plus a cedar. 

French Mandate of Lebanon 1920-43

Or you might think that the population of Lebanon would choose Algeria, the only Arab nation to qualify, as their cultural next of kin. Think again. Many Lebanese even insist they are Phoenecian and not Arab. And Greece, which is, geographically, the closest qualifier, doesn’t even get lip-service when it comes to football.

After a lot of fieldwork, I have a few theories to share on the Lebanese obsession with a Cup that has never been remotely within their reach.

Observation: In the capital Germany’s colours fly everywhere, whereas in the rest of Lebanon Brazil flags are more common.
Theory: The urbane Beirutis, being modern and sophisticated, are also pro-European, while the rest of the population – unfairly dismissed as yokels by the former – identify more with the emerging markets of Latin America and the rustic underdog who came good.

Observation: Many cars bear two different flags, because older generations support either Brazil or Germany while their kids opt for Spain or Italy.
Theory: Young Lebanese are influenced in football as in fashion. They feel a strong desire to coordinate their Gucci shades and their favourite team.

Observation: There have been reports that the politician Michel Aoun has a closet loyalty towards the Netherlands because…they share the signature colour orange.
Theory: If other parties follow suit, for aesthetic reasons or out of an overblown sense of loyalty, those backing Hizbollah may fly Brazil’s Auriverde next to their own green and yellow flag (that would be the one featuring an AK-47),  and the Argentine flag will appear alongside that of Hariri.

political football

Observation: Take a list of qualifiers and run your eye over the ones with past World Cup wins. Brazil – five, Italy – four, Germany – three, Argentina – two. That is pretty much the ratio of the clouds of flags pinned to cars, balconies and stores throughout Lebanon.
Theory: Basically the strategy is: choose the winning team. This may be the only chance Lebanese get to choose their side. Other more important commitments in life are down to the toss of a die over which community they are born into. With the Cup you can even change your mind once every four years. Savour the decision.

To all this conjecture, we can add one truism: the Lebanese like to disagree at close quarters. Where’s the fun if you all support the same team and your closest opponents are in another country? So being a fan is not so much about joining a like-minded community as throwing your heart into one big joyous battle.

Perhaps I have not been here long enough to discern the subtle logic of loyalties, or perhaps like so many things football is no science.

This piece was written for Lonely Planet’s Global World Cup round-up.

16 Responses to “How Lebanon wins the world cup”

  1. Basheer says:

    One thing is for sure, Lebanese loyalty to business is always intact. War’s always been good business… even the petty football battles.

    More on the same:

  2. Jad Aoun says:

    Great theories! Do you mind if I submit them to a the Letter to the Editor of a local newspaper? (of course giving credit where it’s due)

    Here’s the background about what I’m talking about:

  3. [...] were never qualified and yet we get crazy about the event. Why is that? Ginger Beirut tries to explain. [...]

  4. Benjamin R. Greene says:

    I just want you to know I really enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work!

  5. Danielle says:

    This is a wonderful write beautifully!

    As an outsider, I too marvel at how Lebanon has completely transformed during World Cup..and the whole “two flag” phenomenon? Really? The Lebanese always need something to fight for, apparently..

    haha..I’ve really never seen anything quite like it..coming from the states, where Football isn’t a considerably popular sport..the World Cup phenomenon is quite something to witness..We aren’t even that proud of sporting events that we not only participate, but host!

    I will be checking your blog much more frequently now that I’ve found it! :)

  6. Danielle says:

    Ohh, and the French Mandate flag..WOW.. I’ve learned something new today. Thanks!

  7. Dude says:

    If I were any of you I wouldn’t really speak much about that, since you don’t understand football apparently.
    Unfortunately, everyone tends to make everything about Lebanon related to politics.
    Football is another world where everyone get there hopes up, forget about politics, forget about differences, and that’s what the Lebanese here are trying to do. They are getting sick of politics, The World Cup is one other way of just living life without any problems in mind. Even though there are politics freaks that do relate football to it, but please don’t stereotype.
    It has always been an amazing event here in Lebanon. It creates a great atmosphere.
    Also, not every Lebanese here is obsessed with fashion, and not because they are fashion freaks do they choose Italy or Spain. You are confusing things. People only choose to see what they want to see.
    Oh and your first theory is completely wrong. The urbane Beirutis, being modern and sophisticated, are also pro-European? Seriously are you aware of what you are saying?! According to you people look at the way they live and choose the country that is most similar. This is just absurd.

    The way I see it, people are affected by older generations, few are the families that have different members supporting different teams. And if it is the case then it must be that at least one of them really understands football, or like the way a football player plays and so supports his team.

    • @ Dude,
      I’m sorry you failed to grasp the light-hearted tone of this tongue-in-cheek speculation. Note the use of the words “theory” and “conjecture” and the disclaimer at the end. Thanks for sharing your own views on the topic all the same.

  8. Nice says:

    Very funny theories; luv the second degree!
    I was routing for respectively Cameroon, RSA, USA and France…
    Oh well guess I’ll have to wait 4 more years to see et least one of them win the cup :p!

  9. Fadi says:

    It’s a funny peace, but, it is a bit judgemental and offensive, but knowing the cheeky humore used, its all in good spirit…
    I loved the remark about the Lebanese not wanting to all support one team, because it’s no fun! that was brilliant,
    also to clarify a few bits,
    other than the political image of Lebanon, not one Lebanese has any kind of loyalty to France except those that have a French citizenship,it’s a country that conquered us for crying out loud and the flag being as it was was an insult to Lebanese back then, so I didn’t get the comment about the flag…
    and as for Algeria, well most Lebanese that think that they are Arabs aren’t really keen on being all this Arab nationals…they can’t be bothered by that really… as Algeria isn’t really our culture next kin lol! Algerians are African with SO many differences in culture is ridiculous!

    and Greece? they play like shit, also occupied our land at one point… and they took Cyprus away from us !

    anyway all in all its a funny article and a good one too…
    and why wouldn’t some Lebanese insist on being Phoenecian?
    we became Arabs in 1991 , we’ve been Arabs for the past 19 years now, and we’ve been Phoenecians for more than 4000 years.
    just because, the French used the Phoenecian ideology to separate Muslims from Christians, that doesn’t mean that Lebanese are not Phoenecian
    that only means Lebanese are stupid :) with all due respect to my fellow country men.

  10. Basheer says:

    Another theory: Sitting in a café before the Brazil/Netherlands match, I asked the waiter who was decked in Brazilian paraphernalia why he chose to root for Brazil. His answer was short and to the point: there are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon. We have to be with them.

  11. [...] opportunity: an event that Lebanese can gather around regardless of sectarian affiliation (though some feel differently). So it makes sense when you think about it from a sociological standpoint that [...]

  12. Marty says:

    I was in Lebanon for most of the World Cup and I think some of the observations here are wrong? There’s no doubt that Germany and Brazil have the most supporters, but there is no way that Spain and Italy have more supporters than France?
    I’d probably put it in this order…
    1. Germany 2. Brazil 3. Argentina 4. France 5. Spain
    I hardly saw any Italian flags and I was there for the whole world cup except the final.

    Also a lot of Lebanese people do feel a connection to France, in contrast to what the person above said. Everyone that has any form of education can speak French, and anyone in Lebanon with enough money to go overseas for university will go to France.

    • Yes many do feel close to France, as with many ex-colonies where the colonial language is still widely taught in schools. And of course, there are educated people who have chosen to focus more on English than French and choose to go to university in the States and elsewhere.
      It’s possible you may have been counting Dutch flags as French flags too as even in Frenchy-friendly Achrafieh there were not a great many. The Dutch flag has the same stripes but horizontally. If it isn’t flat it can be easy to confuse. But as far as I know there are no official stats – as for everything in Lebanon!

  13. Metro says:

    I love your blog. Although I was born in Lebanon, I now reside in Florida. I was in Lebanon last year during the world cup, and I’m about to travel again in a few days from now to visit family. I loved the flag-party color coordination connection (I never really thought of that! What great observation!!)

    I think the Lebanese are extreme in EVERYTHING they do, and that’s what makes Lebanon “Lebanon”. This has its positive side, which makes the country very colorful. It also has its negative side, which makes it annoying at times.

    After Spain won the world cup, I was with a friend at Bay Rock cafe and the celebration continued long after the results were in. The loud beeping coming from cars, and the perfectly legal Vuvuzelas (after midnight on a weekday) lasted literally 1.5 HOURS. Fun, since nobody else will go into such extreme, and annoying since these people have absolutely no regards for anybody sleeping (and since there are no laws to punish). Anyway… Love the blog. Keep up the good work.

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