As I have previously written, Beirut is the latest place I call home. After quick spells in Cairo and Amman, the Cedar country is where I set my sights on and headed to next looking to roam around, see who’s doing what around here, and meet like-minded creatives to connect and maybe work some magic together.
I landed a handful of weeks before the very noise-generating 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar, expecting like everywhere else I had been in the region in the past, to see unconditional support towards the few Arab teams that were competing at the international football tournament. Our region doesn’t always manage to agree on much, but usually when it comes to football, or just sports in general, whichever country makes the cut and qualifies to try and bring a prestigious prize home gets backed by the rest of the Arab World — heartwarming scenes we’d previously seen when Algeria fiercely fought Germany in 2014, and the Middle East subsequently flew the North African republic’s flag in unisson.
To my surprise though, things were a bit different when watching this year’s football matches in Beirut.
Not so long ago, we told you about how an iteration of the shawarma had made its way, with small tweaks, to Mexico. Fast forward to a couple of months later, and it turns out that tacos are in fact not the only similarity Lebanon shares with Latin America. Since I moved to Beirut, and especially since the World Cup had begun, I came to notice that there was just as much, if not more, support towards sides like Argentina and Brazil than Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, or Morocco, who are part of the same subdivision we tend to call the Arab World, and that were literally making history one day after the other.
From early group stages to knock-out rounds, Beirut was mostly moving to Neymar Jr’s beat, cheering at each one of his Ws and sorrowing all of his Ls. And, now that Brazil is officially out of the tournament, losing to Croatia in a tense penalty session, we can now finally address the big elephant in the room: why were Lebanese people so supportive of Brazil this World Cup?
If I wasn’t at the closest cafe watching the Selecao play, I could still keep up with their games by the sound of cheering neighbors in surrounding streets each time Brazil scored a goal. After the final whistle, cars would honk and bikers would rev their engines for a while before heading back home. And, let’s just say that the same fervor couldn’t necessarily be felt when the region’s teams played, with bars tending to be a little less busy, and a bit more quiet.
“I support Brazil because I feel we have a lot in common with them. Not only our lifestyle but also the volatile situations both countries can get into, especially politically,” Ahmed, a 19-year-old literature student from the American University of Beirut told me. “The biggest reason I support them is because of the Lebanese diaspora there. Most Brazilians were welcoming to our people in times of need, especially in the early 1900s. I feel that our cultures can mix easily,” he continued before joking that the only thing the countries don’t have in common is that Brazil’s five-time-World-Cup-winning football team is much better than theirs.
It’s true, when it comes to the reason behind Lebanon’s massive Brazil support, diaspora is the first thing that came to the mind of many. In numbers, the Lebanese community in Brazil ranges between seven to 10 million people, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which means that there’s approximately the same, if not more, Lebanese people living in the South American country than inside their native land.
Both countries go way back as the South American country welcomed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese immigrants beginning from the end 19th century when predominantly Christian Lebanese fled the political and economic instability caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and started heading across the Atlantic. Substantial waves of immigration also took place during the country’s Civil War in the 1970s and actually still happen to this day. The ties are strong, although very rarely discussed, and the entertained relationship could be the main factor driving the strong support of Brazil in this World Cup.
“We all know someone in Brazil, we’ve got both friends and family there, and you have to support where your family is,” commented Professor Z, a Lebanese artist based in London, via text message.
It’s now worth asking: why should we expect Arab countries to blindly support each other when some might have more history with another nation, in this case, Brazil? But that’s not the hill I want to die on as I believe that Arabs should support Arabs regardless of the incentive behind them, because if we don’t who will?
Arab countries have only been successful on a handful of occasions at the World Cup when South American countries mark history every edition or so. Being represented at the quadrennial sporting competition is a way to send a message, to feel part of something bigger, and to mirror that to the rest.
Given how regularly Brazil ends up qualifying for the World Cup and going past its final stages, if anyone wants to send a message to the international community on the regular, with the region’s usually low odds, it’s best to stick with Latin American side than Arab teams that usually struggle to get a ticket to the sporting competition to begin with.
“Like anywhere else in the world, sports are political. In the context of Lebanon, it’s the exact same, and in the case of international tournaments, they are used to express some sort of political affiliation,” a Lebanese friend of mine explained around a cup of coffee ahead of the round of 16. “Supporters can be sectarian in nature and decide to root for a team depending on what they stand for or what it means to them” he continued.
“This doesn’t stand if the individual doesn’t like the players or if performances don’t follow to begin with, but there’s obviously a deeper layer to it all, or should I say layers, and it really shows something.”
Others have claimed that the reason why some have pledged allegiance to Brazil is because of the country’s yellow and green flag colors which are very reminiscent of Hezbollah’s own. Though the theory hasn’t been endorsed by any institution or representative so far, the word on the streets seems to confirm the above.
With all that being said, once Morocco advanced through the further stages of the competition, becoming the first African and Arab team to ever reach the semi-finals of a FIFA World Cup, the outcome on the streets of Beirut was like one would expect to see in Casablanca, Cairo, or Dakar. It was an explosion of happiness, from the people that got too used to defeat and that are finally at the center of the world’s stage, with the planet’s cameras all focused on them.
My Lebanese comrades all remembered that Moroccan guy they met once and made sure to send the congratulations over and celebrate as one. From friends to taxi drivers, Beirut finally found a reason to take over the streets and parade after months of struggle.
It even confirmed some of my initial thoughts. On one hand, Lebanon is not the first country that comes to mind when you think of football in the region, so I don’t take their support in the sport too seriously. And, on the other hand, they became us when they thought of Morocco seriously having a chance at lifting the Golden trophy after making it in the semis. It might have taken some time, but better late than never. Beirutis themselves couldn’t believe it as we made history together, for once: