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.
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.
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.