Beirut: A month ago, the streets of Beirut and cities and towns across Lebanon were decorated with posters and flags of Lebanon and the political parties and candidates running for the parliamentary elections that took place on May 6. Today, these same streets, buildings and cars are home to flags of foreign countries.
“I’m not an Arab nationalist, I never identified as one, but I can’t help shaking this feeling of solidarity with the four Arab teams,” Charbel, an Italy fan who was cheering on Egypt in their match against Russia told Gulf News.
“I’m not particularly invested in Morocco, Tunisia or Saudi Arabia’s games but with Egypt it’s another story. Maybe because they have [Mohamad] Salah and [Mohamed] Al Shenawy.”
The favourite teams in Lebanon are: Brazil, Germany and Italy, even though the Italian national football team did not qualify to this year’s World Cup. But even the flags of Argentina, Iran, France and Nigeria can be seen.
One explanation for this could be that the majority of Lebanese live outside of Lebanon. While there are no exact figures it is expected that Lebanon boasts a population of up to 18 million people strewn about various countries across the globe—only 4 million Lebanese actually live in Lebanon.
For Samia, a 42-year-old football fan and a dual French-Lebanese national, supporting France was an “obvious” choice.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Paris and I am French so of course Les Bleus are my obvious choice and I’m following every single one of their games.”
Her husband, Rakan, a dual Lebanese-Nigerian national echoed her thoughts and said: “Nigeria all the way! They’re my country after all.”
But another reason why Lebanese are World Cup-obsessed could be psychological.
“There could be a collective unconscious that makes us associate to one country due to historical reasons; France is a good example since Lebanon was under the French mandate and we still feel the French influence in our identity, everyday life and language,” clinical psychologist, Sarah-Joe Chamate told Gulf News.
“Sometimes, a fan will relate to a country in a cultural manner such as Italy for example because they are perceived as sharing a lot of common ‘Mediterranean’ values and traits.”
“There is often an unconscious association between the fans and the country’s attributes,” she said.
“For example, Germany is often thought of as strong and disciplined and Brazil as ‘talented’ and ‘creative’, according to the fans preference they will choose one over the other,” Chamate said.
For Zein, a 31-year-old-football fan, it has always been Germany.
“I’ve been supporting the German national football team since I was a kid. It was the 1990s and they were the champions so, being a child, I was incredibly impressed by them and chose them as ‘my team’”, he said. He was still reeling from his team’s shock defeat against Mexico but he says he will stick by them till the end.
“You never abandon ‘your team’. It’s like this sense of belonging: you choose one country and you stick to it and even though it’s not your country, it sort of becomes that,” he added.
“What is missing in Lebanon is a sense of belonging,” said another football fan, Hassan.
“While we have talented players, we lack professional trainers, infrastructure and support from the government—not only in football but other sports,” he told Gulf News.
“Because of this void we find solace in other teams and countries,” he said.
The World Cup also serves as welcome distraction for many Lebanese reeling from economic and political stagnation.
The games give Lebanese a way to escape from their problems.
“When dealing with daily stress, adversity or violence Lebanese deploy their favourite defence mechanism: denial,” Chamate said.
She said a perfect example of this was how, during their 15-year civil war, the Lebanese earned a reputation for heavy partying.
“Lebanon has a lot of issues and the situation is far from ideal, but watching football won’t make things worse,” Charbel says with a wry smile.
“In fact it’ll help us cope so let’s just enjoy this. Tomorrow is another day.”
-Malak is a freelance journalist based in Beirut