Morocco's World Cup clash with France kicks off new allegiances in Lebanon

With usual favourites Brazil and Germany out, many Lebanese are backing the Atlas Lions — despite tensions

Lebanese fans supporting Brazil during their World Cup match against Switzerland, in Sabtiyeh, north of Beirut AFP
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World Cup support in Lebanon is traditionally reserved for two of the globe's strongest teams — five-time winners Brazil and four-time champions Germany.

But with both teams eliminated from this year’s tournament, some Lebanese fans are pinning new hopes on “consolation” teams.

With Argentina, Morocco, France and Croatia contesting the competition's semi-finals, some fans have turned to Argentina out of loyalty to all-time great Lionel Messi — who is almost universally adored in the Arab world.

Others respect Croatia's impressive defensive performances, which have put them within touching distance of their second successive World Cup final, if they can beat Argentina on Tuesday.

A subset of Lebanese fans support France — the former colonial power that has traditional links to the Christian community.

But with Morocco’s advance to the semi-finals after a stunning victory over Portugal last week, many fans have become fans of the Atlas Lions overnight, upholding the North African nation’s victory as one for Arabs everywhere.

“Brazil was my team,” said Samaa Saadeh, a sporting goods store owner who resides in Ashrafieh, a predominantly upper-class and Christian neighbourhood of Beirut.

“Now I’m with Argentina, because they’re my second-favourite team. But I don’t mind if Morocco wins the match because their wins were so unexpected and they’ve played so well.”

Many football fans in Lebanon traditionally support Brazil or Germany, who have nine World Cups between them. AFP

Widespread support for Morocco challenges notions that Lebanon’s national identity is split along confessional lines, amid fears that the France vs Morocco match on Wednesday could inflame tensions from the 1975-1990 Civil War-era, which roughly divided the nation into pro-Arab and pro-French camps.

During the war, Lebanon's militias fought for political influence by exploiting the country's religious rifts.

Ms Saadeh spoke to The National next her stall at a festive Christmas market located in the centre of the neighbourhood.

That Christmas market was a location of tense clashes last week when dozens of fans on motorbikes from the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Tariq Al Jdideh passed through Ashrafieh in celebration of Morocco’s win against Portugal.

The revellers waved Moroccan and Palestinian flags and chanted “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” — a chant often used by Arab fans and sports commentators. It led to an altercation between them and the neighbourhood’s residents and prompted an intervention by the Lebanese Army.

The clashes elicited a range of extreme reactions online.

Critics said the procession was a provocation, calling for the neighbourhood to increase self-policing measures and threatening to retaliate.

Others defended the Lebanese football fans' rights to celebrate anywhere, pointing out the convoy had experienced no trouble in other neighbourhoods of Beirut.

But most people who spoke to The National said the motorbike procession and the violent clashes that followed did not represent their own convictions.

Many from both Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods said they supported Morocco — although not all forms of celebration.

Hossam, from the nearby neighbourhood of Zoukak Al Blat, was happy to see Morocco’s progression to the semi-finals.

“I’m a diehard Argentina fan but I don’t even mind if Morocco wins. I’m happy to see an Arab team make it so far,” he said.

But he criticised some fans who had come to celebrate in Ashrafieh, accusing them of causing trouble.

Hossam dismissed fears that Wednesday’s match could create a rift: “What does football have to do with religion? It’s the politicians who use religion to control us.”

It is a widely acknowledged cliche that Lebanon’s entrenched confessional politics — under which highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities — spill into daily life, complicating the country's national identity.

But within the small nation’s complicated landscape of competing confessional, political and national identities, football allegiances rarely follow a rational orthodoxy.

Germany and Brazil flags for sale in Beirut. EPA

While Brazil’s traditional rivals are fellow South Americans Argentina, Lebanese fans consider Germany to be the Brazilians' biggest foe — with ultra-fans often coming to blows.

And while French is taught in schools and spoken overwhelmingly in some neighbourhoods and cities, with a sizeable Lebanese diaspora residing in France, the country's football team is not among the most popular teams in Lebanon.

“Even most France-loving people support either Germany or Brazil,” said Mario Tarshihi, an Ashrafieh resident and staunch fan of the England team.

With England eliminated from the tournament by France, Mr Tarshihi now hopes Morocco will win.

Although the clash in Achrafiyeh stirred fears that the France vs Morocco match could inflame further tension, many in the neighbourhood still hope for a Morocco win.

Pia, a half-French half-Lebanese resident of the neighbourhood, told The National that, while she was a staunch France supporter, she was torn about who she wanted to win.

“This World Cup made me fall in love with Morocco. I’ll support France because I have more attachment to the country,” she said.

“But if Morocco wins, it's also a win for me.”

Updated: December 13, 2022, 12:24 PM