Of­fi­cials shelve pol­i­tics for foot­ball, find com­mon ground

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Joseph Haboush

BEIRUT: Le­banon did not qual­ify for this year’s World Cup in Rus­sia, but that doesn’t mean the coun­try and its po­lit­i­cal lead­ers aren’t geared up for the year’s most an­tic­i­pated sports event.

Flags have been draped over bal­conies while cars have been fes­tooned with the em­blems of par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries that Le­banese foot­ball fans will sup­port.

And de­spite lo­cal politi­cians be­ing un­der pres­sure to form a new gov­ern­ment, some are also ea­ger to en­joy the fes­tive at­mos­phere that ac­com­pa­nies the global sport­ing event.

Many Le­banese po­lit­i­cal par­ties are backed by cer­tain for­eign coun­tries or sim­ply see eye to eye with their poli­cies – no­tably Saudi Ara­bia or Iran – but this schism will be put aside for a month when­ever a foot­ball match is on the tele­vi­sion.

Prime Min­is­ter des­ig­nate-Saad Hariri is al­ready in Moscow for the World Cup open­ing events, telling re­porters af­ter meet­ing Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin that he has long sup­ported Brazil, “since I was young.” De­spite back­ing the South Amer­i­can coun­try, he added, “if there is an Arab state [play­ing], we are cer­tainly with the Arab coun­tries.”

Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia will play the tour­na­ment’s open­ing match Thurs­day at 6 p.m. Beirut time.

Hariri’s aunt and MP Bahia Hariri told The Daily Star she nor­mally doesn’t fol­low foot­ball, “but since there are Arab coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ing, it’s only nor­mal for me to cheer them on – specif­i­cally Egypt and Mo­hamed Salah,” Bahia Hariri said, in ref­er­ence to the Egyp­tian who plies his club foot­ball trade with Liver­pool.

Speaker Nabih Berri pre­vi­ously spoke of Brazil “be­ing in his blood” when asked who he’d be sup­port­ing.

Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun is also a re­ported fan of Brazil.

The Daily Star spoke to a num­ber of min­is­ters in the care­taker gov­ern­ment, as well as newly elected MPs, to find out who they are root­ing for this year.

“Ger­many, no doubt,” care­taker In­for­ma­tion Min­is­ter Mel­hem Ri­achi said.

Hezbol­lah MP Amin Sharri said he would be cheer­ing on Brazil too.

His col­league and fel­low MP Ali Am­mar is also a fan of the “Sele­cao.” Am­mar is op­ti­mistic about Brazil’s chances of win­ning the tour­na­ment this year.

“Their level in the prepara­tory matches was good, but af­ter that we didn’t see the other teams to com­pare their level to Brazil’s,” said Am­mar, who him­self was a foot­baller dur­ing his youth. He also fol­lows the do­mes­tic league closely.

“I’m closer to sup­port­ing Ne­jmeh than any other team in the league,” he added, re­fer­ring to the Le­banese mul­ti­sports club.

Amal Move­ment MP Mo­ham­mad Khawaja was ec­static when posed a ques­tion not re­lated to pol­i­tics. “This ques­tion is bet­ter than any po­lit­i­cal de­bate or ques­tion you could have asked me,” he said, but added he does not sup­port any team in par­tic­u­lar. Khawaja will cheer on any Arab team “even if I dis­agree with them po­lit­i­cally – Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia, any Arab team.”

Morocco and Tu­nisia will also be com­pet­ing in the tour­na­ment.

But the MP said he wished Le­banon had made it to the tour­na­ment, “be­cause ob­vi­ously, I would root for my home­land.”

Tak­ing a more pa­tri­otic stance, care­taker De­fense Min­is­ter Yaa­coub Sar­raf told The Daily Star in a text that he would “cheer for Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun.”

MP Sami Ge­mayel is in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion, hav­ing spread his al­le­giance across a num­ber of na­tional teams based on the club team he sup­ports. “I’m a Paris Saint-Ger­main fan so I will be fol­low­ing Ney­mar, Thi­ago da Silva and Mar­quin­hos with Brazil; [Angel] Di Maria and [Gio­vani] Lo Celso with Ar­gentina; and [Kylian] Mbappe with France. It will be tough for me,” Ge­mayel said.

Care­taker In­te­rior Min­is­ter Nouhad Mach­nouk sup­ports “Ger­many for­ever,” while care­taker Jus­tice Min­is­ter Salim Jreis­sati is an Ar­gentina fan. For­mer Econ­omy Min­is­ter Alain Hakim is with “the one and only ma­chine in foot­ball – the Mannschaft,” he said, re­fer­ring to Ger­many.

Pro­gres­sive So­cial­ist Party spokesman Rami Rayyes will also be cheer­ing on any Arab team.

“But I used to love France in [Michel] Pla­tini’s days,” he said.

For­mer Fu­ture Move­ment MP Okab Sakr is hop­ing France will take home the tro­phy this year.

Pic­tures of foot­ball play­ers are af­fixed out­side a Beirut restau­rant.

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