Lebanon 2 – 2 Kuwait
Posted on October 12, 2011
I shan’t bore you with the details of our miraculous entry to Camille Chamaoun stadium, seconds before Lebanon kicked off its World Cup Qualifier versus Kuwait in Beirut. Suffice to day, it involved an awful lot of shoving, judicious use of some blue language and several showings of spurious press credentials.
The game itself was less remarkable than the atmosphere surrounding it. Lebanon drew, twice throwing away a lead after a promising first half and a brilliantly worked goal capped by wunderkid Hassan Maatouk (who went on to have an entirely unspectacular game).
What first struck me was the sheer size of the crowd. Lebanon’s previous home qualifier, against the U.A.E., drew roughly 7,000 spectators – easily the biggest crowd for a national football match since 2005. Yesterday, it was more like 40,000.
Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts predominated, sure, but the overall effect of thousands of fans funneling into the upper concourses of Citie Sportiff was as colorful as it was encouraging. My favorite fan had to be the small boy sitting in front of me, waving a Lebanese flag as furiously as his arms would allow, wearing a Kaka Brazil shirt.
Much has been made of the parlous state of Lebanese football since fans were banned from domestic games, largely on the grounds of their inability to stop killing each other. There were wobbles yesterday.
Those fans – who didn’t need so much as a ticket or ID or even a brisk frisking to enter the ground – who poured into the stadium around kickoff were herded into already dangerously overcrowding seating blocks. As we were pushing our way up the concrete steps a friend (Spurs fan, but still) turned and said: “This has Hillsborough written all over it.” He was only half-joking.
The Army, for reasons unexplained, had sectioned off large parts of the stadium in which rows and rows of empty seats were juxtaposed with the almighty crush occurring in other blocks. There seemed no discernable system in place; as the game began and soldiers’ gazes were diverted onto the field, several enterprising Lebanon fans simply hopped the glass barriers and dissipated around the east stands. No attempt was made to stop them and it came as little surprise that the first of three game stoppages came when a fan ran onto the pitch and hugged Lebanon’s goalkeeper.
The ovation he received from the crowd was doubled as he was accosted by police who transported him around the running track and into the players tunnel. On a golf cart.
I’d been told that there were 3,000 Kuwait fans expected at the game but, from my lofty perch in the VIP area (again, won’t bore with details) I could see neither hide nor hair of them until minutes into the second half, when Kuwait equalised from a close-range header. Cure thousands of screaming men just below us, accompanied by an improbably large bass drum and a megaphoned announcer who sounded increasingly like a fly humping a mic.
The second half saw two more stoppages, apparently because some bright spark in the crowd kept shining a laser pen at the eyes of the Kuwaiti goalkeeper. The second time, Lebanon’s captain Roda Antar – ever classy and unruffled while playing – launched a gesticulating tirade against Kuwait’s coach, I guess asking him rather less than politely to get on with the effing game.
Get on he did and Lebanon won a penalty in the dying minutes, which was duly slotted home by Maatouk (I know, I said he’d been rubbish but, apart from his brace, he was. If that’s possible).
I had to leave a little early to catch a lift somewhere, so I joined the hundreds filing out of the stadium prematurely. I told my lift that Lebanon had won, which pleased him greatly, only to find out somewhere en route that Kuwait had equalised through a last-ditch own goal. I give up.
As we crawled our way through the gridlocked streets crowded with shirtless fans brandishing drums and vuvuzelas apparently not noticing the wide open gates of the Kuwaiti Embassy, I was struck with how incongruous the scene appeared; in London, this happens twice a week, but in Lebanon, hardly ever.
In that sense, the own-goal brain fart by Lebanon’s right back didn’t matter. If fans can behave themselves in such huge numbers for future fixtures, football in Lebanon, to paraphrase that awful cliche, may end up being the real winner.