Officials shelve politics for football, find common ground
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.