This year’s AFC Asian Cup opening game marks a big moment for Lebanon as the first time the Cedars have qualified for the tournament, in 2000 when they competed it was as host nation.
But as the boys in red and white prepared to fly to the UAE last week, prime minister-designate Saad Hariri had a last minute request: “be one hand”.
Nineteen years after they first played in the tournament, Lebanon’s political landscape is radically different. The sectarian divisions that dominate much of public life are more entrenched and seemingly more intractable. In football, as in politics, sectarianism looms large.
The fan base the 12 Lebanese league clubs draw largely upon political or sectarian affiliations.
Three Beirut teams, Nejmeh, Ansar and Ahed, jockey for the top spot in the league. Ahed, who play in the same bright shade of yellow as the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, have won three out of the last four seasons.
The majority Sunni backed Ansar, on the other hand, holds world records for consecutive league titles having taken home 11 during the ‘90s. Despite this, the club’s secretary-general Nabil Badr ran against a list backed by the Sunni Saad Hariri in last year’s parliamentary elections.
Following his drubbing to the prime minister-designate's Future Movement backed candidates, Mr Badr submitted his resignation as head of the club. But when the dust settled, political interventions were made and Mr Badr remained at the helm.
But the off-pitch competition isn’t always as cordial.
In 2016, Kassem Shamkha became one of a handful of professional Lebanese players to be killed fighting in Syria. The rising Ahed star died in Aleppo fighting with Hezbollah. Lebanon’s football association has called on clubs to ban players who have fought in the neighbouring conflict if they try and return, but so far there have been no publicised cases of a footballer being barred or any more players going to fight.
When Ansar and Ahed face off, supporters from each side hurl sectarian chants at each other. One side chants and glorifies the names of Mr Hariri and his slain father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The other cheers on the “resistance”, shorthand for Hezbollah, and praise the group’s leader Hasan Nasrallah.
Flags of the political parties are interlaced with emblems of the teams.
So visceral is the feeling that games in the league have often taken place with no crowd in the stadium for fear of violence.
Nejmeh probably sits at the top for number of supporters and once boasted the legendary Brazilian footballer Pele as a player.
While the logo of Bankmed, partly owned by Mr Hariri, is printed across the front of the team’s jersey and much of the club’s administration and board are Sunni, the supporters hold a different political vision. In the stands, the chants are for Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Shiite sect.
While the fans are largely from a single sect, the teams on the pitch are from all backgrounds – managers usually make a conscious effort to have a diverse squad in an attempt to portray their respective teams as models of coexistence. The national team is no different.
It is against this background that Mr Hariri gave his instruction for players to be one hand. He was saying, in effect, leave sectarianism at home.
The national team is one of the few times where fans are forced to intermingle and support a single common cause for the interest of the nation, and this they do enthusiastically.
At the final training session in Lebanon before they left – where Mr Hariri visited the squad – fans from all over the country filled Nejmeh’s Beirut stadium but they exchanged their sectarian chants for patriotic anthems.
When the 23-man roster and the coaching staff passed through Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport en route for the UAE, Ahed, Nejmeh and Ansar supporters were among the fans out in force to cheer them off.
When the Cedars take to the field on Wednesday for their first game of the tournament against Qatar, Lebanese citizens at home and abroad will toss their club jerseys aside and don the red, green and white of the national kit.
While the country might not have a cabinet eight months after parliamentary elections, Messrs Hariri and Berri – both avid football fans themselves – will stand with politicians from across the spectrum and divides to back their team. When the tournament is over, many will look to see if that rare spell of unity can carry over into forming a new government.