I’ve been to many games all around Europe and I’ve yet to experience anything similar to what I did today at the Camille Chamoun stadium in Beirut to watch Lebanon vs South Korea. It was the first time I watch a game in Lebanon and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. Let me first say, if you go into the game with a negative attitude, you’re going to see the whole thing as a mess and not enjoy the experience. Going into it with a positive vibe meant that not only was it completely different to any normal Football atmosphere, but it also demonstrated some aspects which distinguish Lebanese people in general. So many random things occurred during and around this match that such things would be unthinkable anywhere else in the world of Football.
Arriving to the stadium by car, alongside 3 other friends of mine, meant that we had to endure the mandatory traffic jam to reach the stadium. We got to the stadium 15 minutes before it kicked-off, but also as per the typical Lebanese obligations, we were unable to find a parking spot for 20 minutes and just decided to park it in an “illegal” spot blocking a road and the exit areas of other cars. We figured we might as well do that since it was impossible to find a spot anywhere else – just following the Lebanese standards. Can’t blame us, but this happens in our culture. Only in Lebanon. Outside the stadium and from way beyond the field, we could hear the roar of the crowd. My friends and I looked at each other with smiles on our faces and knew we were in for something different. Lots of people were also late and making their way into the stadium when we heard a cheer so loud that we imagined that Lebanon had gone 1-0 up (or that someone important had just waved, as Lebanese fans seem to get enthusiastic about pretty much anything). We missed what turned out to be the first goal, but the buoyant atmosphere only got better because of it. Approaching the gate, we realized that there was no ticket fee – the game was free of charge. Tell that to any other Footballing nation and they’ll drool at the concept of a free game for fans – this is unheard of anywhere else in the world. Only in Lebanon.
The fact this game was free of charge can only give you a brief idea of what type of crowd was there. It felt different, raw and a bit old school. No uptight fans making noises about being seated or stood up; just a bunch of Football-loving people who got the chance to watch their beloved nation play a qualifying game for free. Those are the people you would want at a game to make an atmosphere, and they did that in abundance! I strongly believe that those who were at the game today are true genuine Football lovers. As we got into the stadium, we weren’t sure of the score, and to make this experience even more different, it was probably the first time I go to a game where the scoreboard and timer are actually turned off. So we had to ask the people around “what’s the score?”, and they confirmed that we were 1-0 up. Where on earth would that ever happen at any professional game in the world? Not just only a professional game, but a World Cup qualifier!? Only in Lebanon.
Once we took our seats, and Beirut's schizophrenic weather began changing, we realized how crowded it was - much more than we’d expected, and definitely noisier than I’d have thought possible for a Football game in Lebanon. The crowd was so loud, cheerful and positive that regardless of what happened, they made sure the Koreans felt their presence. No real chants, just noise and gibberish that sounded fun to sing along to. This intimidating crowd gave me the feeling that their noise would have an impact on the game and particularly on the referee. Initially I was proved wrong when the referee awarded South Korea a penalty and a chance to equalize. A chance that Koo Ja-Cheol converted with ease. As the ball hit the back of the net, I looked at my friend beside me and we laughed at just how quickly the place had gone silent. You could hear a pin drop in the place. For about a full minute, silence took over. But that didn’t last long as chants of “chilol 7akam w 7otto 7mar” (translation: take off the ref and put a donkey) started buzzing. Just as the atmosphere got its strength back and a Mexican wave began doing its rounds amongst the supporters, the referee evened things up by awarding Lebanon a penalty. From where we were sat, the section behind the goal where Lebanon scored towards in the first half, the decision looked fair enough. Abbas Atwi converted the spot kick to put the home side 2-1 ahead. The home side and their fans were making all the noise as half time arrived.
The second half produced a dire performance by the Lebanese side, but one that was good enough to keep the South Koreans' best efforts at bay. Besides for the experience of Roda Antar, nobody else looked seemed to be ready to take charge of the game for Lebanon’s men. Time after time, the away side were trying to build the play and keep the ball, but the Lebanese would intercept it and hoof the ball away carelessly. The game became a bit edgy, but that didn’t stop the entertainment, as a Lebanese fan somehow – through the gazing eyes of literally 1000 of soldiers – managed to get onto the pitch, with his Lebanese flag, run his ass off across the length of the field untouched and unnoticed, only to give a hug and a kiss to one of the Lebanese players; before finally being escorted (once he had gotten off the field himself and did what he wanted to do) by the soldiers... Only in Lebanon! Just to point it out, normally a streaker like that on any field in Europe would get rugby-tackled within seconds. To add to the random amusement, we also noticed that below us, sitting in the track & field area of the stadium, was the “fire brigade team” watching the game… and smoking cigarettes. I wonder if there’s ever been a more ironic sight of people at work than that. Only in Lebanon!
Back to matters on the pitch and during the entire second half, as we’d seen in the first half, one team wanted to keep the ball and play Football and the other just wanted to get a result and didn't care how they did it. Besides for the unfortunate fact that most Lebanese players kept trying to selfishly dribble instead of looking for a pass, their determination and will to get the win is what got them through…in addition to some dubious decisions by the referee in Lebanon’s favor at critical times during the game. As my friend said “if I were Korean, I’d be furious with the ref right now”. Just as predicted, the crowd had its effect. They spurred the team on to success and made sure the ref would favor Lebanon when it came to small, but key, decisions. The Korean fans, all twelve of them, were sat behind their side’s bench and had nothing much to cheer about for the remainder of the game, besides for the fact that they actually were able to find South Korean flags in Lebanon – which in itself must be some sort of feat. Few occasions were created by the South Koreans to try and level the score but they were to no avail, as Ziad Samad (a surprisingly short and fat goalkeeper whose goal kicks never passed the halfway line) saved all their efforts.
As the final whistle blew, with 2-1 the final score, the crowd erupted and joy filled the stadium as if Lebanon had qualified for the World Cup. Gunshots and fireworks erupted for a victory which, no matter how good it feels, in reality, means nothing more than 3 points. Where else would people celebrate 3 points like that? Only in Lebanon. Reading the reports online and watching the local news, one would think that Lebanon have qualified for Brazil 2014. Lebanon have not yet qualified. Not only do Lebanon have to beat the UAE in February to officially qualify to the next round of the Asian Qualifying section for the World Cup 2014, but if they do win (which is pretty likely against a weak UAE side), they will have to qualify from another pool of 5 teams - with 8 matches to prove themselves over the course of a year between 2012 and 2013. But for now at least, the country should be proud of its achievements and content itself with being in the top 10 sides in Asia (for the first time ever?) and with the prospect of at least being able to challenge the other Asian sides and potentially qualify. But there’s still a long way to go. So there’s no need to get ahead of ourselves as we always do... Only in Lebanon!
(Keep supporting our men out there! We are the twelfth man and our support can make a difference!)