Al Ansar v Al Nejmeh...When Two Tribes Go To War

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From the penalty box to Pandora’s Box, a tale of exaggerated religious tribalism, eternal political discord, hope and despair in equal measures and the beginning of the beginning. Welcome to Beirut where the rules are, there are no rules!



BEIRUT, Lebanon…Just over two and a half hours before kick-off and scores of armed military personnel form a cordon around the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium.  Tanks and armoured vehicles are strategically positioned and the capital holds its breath.  Its derby day, the most eagerly anticipated fixture in Lebanon.  With six Beiruti teams competing in the Lebanese Premier League, every weekend is derby day, but this derby is different because it’s like no other game in the country.  Billed as the Lebanese El Classico, the first derby between Nejmeh and Ansar was played on the 8th December 1968, but the unconcealed enmity between Lebanon’s two most successful teams only really gathered pace shortly after the civil war during the ‘Rahif Alame era,’ but more about him later.  It’s a rivalry borne of suspicion.  A rivalry borne of antagonism.  A rivalry borne of envy.  A rivalry borne of mistrust.  And if you throw into the mix a history of political division, exaggerated religious tribalism and a bottomless pit of conspiracy theories, it becomes a combustible cocktail of toxicity.

A football derby drives fans to displays of partisan devotion like no other sport and both Nejmeh and Ansar supporters show allegiance to their clubs that goes beyond the pale.  This is a hate ridden and noxious affair, quite possibly the perfect embodiment of footballing hatred and although there is no evidence of a ‘copycat’ football hooligan firm culture in Lebanon, this is a clash that has been infused with violent episodes for over three decades.  Disorder peaked in the 80s and 90s during Ansar’s period of dominance and although the cause was multifactorial, much of it was instigated by corrupt officialdom that enraged Nejmeh supporters.  Football has the innate ability to bring out the worst in people.  And it did!  

The latest instalment of crowd disorder in this hostile Beirut showdown was played out at the Camille back in October 2017.  Ansar’s 5-1 victory was the catalyst for fierce clashes between Nejmeh supporters and security forces that saw 100s of seats ripped out and used as missiles by exasperated fans angered by the humiliating scoreline, the first time Nejmeh had conceded more than 3 goals since 1996.  But Lebanon’s most tempestuous rivalry rarely passes without incident.  It’s a derby custom; part of the package!   

 

The Camille Chamoun is a multi-purpose 48,000 all-seater capacity stadium and is the biggest in Lebanon.  It was originally constructed in 1957 but had to be rebuilt for the 2000 Asian cup after suffering extensive damage during the civil war.  The stadium is an oval design, complete with moat and running track, and with the exception of the West Stand, is completely open to the elements.  It’s located in the densely populated Bir Hassan district on the outskirts of the city centre, adjacent to the troubled refugee camp that is home to thousands of displaced Palestinians.

This grossly deprived area is controlled by Palestinian Militia types and is strictly off limits.  “Not even the police go in there,” comments Rabah, our chaperone for the journey to the stadium.  Rabah is hardcore Nejmeh and proud member of Ultras Supernova, Lebanon’s first Ultra group.  “We will have around 25,000 supporters at today’s derby,” confirmed Rabah.  “But we have three very important players missing the game so it will be very difficult for us,” he sighed.  Nejmeh’s away following is extraordinarily unique, or at least their ticket allocation is.  It must be the biggest of any team in world football.    

Lebanese football is also unique because Premier League teams don’t necessarily play all their home games at the same venue.  All the modern football stadiums are state-owned and have independent administrations, so the allocation of venues is negotiated between the FA and the stadium administrations before being allocated to the fixture with very little notice.  Nejmeh tend to play most home games at the 22,000 all seated International Stadium in Saida or at today’s venue the Camille Chamoun. 

Their original home ground was the historical Al Manara (lighthouse) stadium in the Ras Beirut district of Beirut, but it was renamed the Rafic Hariri Stadium shortly after the assassination of former club patron Rafic Hariri in 2005.  It’s a dated 5,000 capacity stadium that has seen better days.  The playing surface used to be sand but was replaced with grass when the stadium underwent extensive refurbishment at the turn of the millennium, but Nejmeh’s last competitive game was played there back in 1989.   Despite its limitations, the team still train there and they hold an open session every Monday.  It’s a training facility that has since had the grass replaced with 3G astroturf and can now also be hired for public use at around 80 Dollars per booking.


Arch rivals Ansar used to be based at the 18,000 capacity Beirut Municipality Stadium just across the way from Camille, but although renovated at a cost of around eight million dollars between 1994 and 1997, it was neglected beyond a state of repair and is no longer fit for purpose. So the Camille Chamoun Stadium is now home to Ansar and they have use of a separate facility to accommodate their training sessions.

In February 2017 the FA broke with tradition and inexplicably ordered the derby to be played at the 6,500 capacity Sour Stadium in Tyre, an ancient Phoenician city in South Lebanon, over 100km outside of Beirut.  With Nejmeh boasting the county’s largest fan base and drawing a minimum 8,000 supporters for a regular game, the decision to take the derby to Tyre appeared wilfully neglectful at best.  True to form and as anticipated by everybody apart from the FA, fans turned up in their thousands and packed out the stadium to a point where lives were said to be endangered.  With no room left in the stands, thousands of supporters clambered on to the stadium roof and scaled floodlights in order to watch the match.  The incident sparked a series of angry public exchanges between the FA and the Internal Security Forces. 





When asked about responsibility, Hashem Haidar (LFA President) told the Daily Star “You should ask the security forces because this is not our job.”  “The Internal Security Forces are responsible for the safety of the fans and there is constant contact between {the federation} and the ISF,”Haidar said. But a source from the ISF rejected Haidar’s claims.  “Our job is to make sure the situation remains stable between fans and players.  We don’t know how many people are allowed to enter the stadium.  Who is the one benefitting from all the entries and tickets purchased?”  Sports journalist Myriam Damoury put another slant on the row by claiming that with the Chamille in disrepair and the Municipality unusable, the 10,500 seater Burj Hammoud Stadium would have been better suited to accommodate such a high profile game had the FA and the Burj Hammoud administration been on better terms. So it would appear petty internal politics, a recurrent theme with the LFA, appeared to be the root cause of the headline grabbing incident that could have quite easily led to loss of life but for a huge slice of nothing other than good fortune.





It’s just before 2 pm and we’re heading across the car park to the first checkpoint.  The dual carriageway is heavily congested with flag-waving Nejmeh supporters decked out in club colours and they’re in good spirits.  They announce their arrival with a cacophony of drumming, incessant honking of car horns and random ear-piercing explosions made by firecrackers.  Service (pronounced servees) taxis and shared minivans are the most common form of transport to the stadium, particularly for those living out of the centre.  First appearances suggest they’re not roadworthy but this is Beirut and I’m not sure roadworthiness is a prerequisite for hired transportation.  Each journey is like a real-life episode of Wacky Races; honk horn, foot down, weave, cut up and drop off. Repeat to fade.  I’d had the Dick Dastardly experience the previous evening upon my return from the Al Ahed v Safa game at the International stadium in Saida, but unlike in the cartoon they somehow, miraculously, manage to get you from A to B without mishap, albeit with a significantly increased heart rate and a squeaky bum.  But they’re ridiculously cheap at around 1000-2000 Lebanese pounds per trip so everyone’s a winner.      

The crowd was steady but not yet biblical which made Rabah’s purchase of our match tickets from the stadium ticket office a relatively straightforward process.  Although football is the national sport, clubs here haven’t yet managed to haul themselves into the 21st century.  Stadiums are state-owned, there is nothing in the way of official merchandise and there are no season tickets because in Lebanon the FA are responsible for ticket sales, not the clubs.  Matchday tickets can only be purchased from the stadium a couple of hours before kick-off, but at just over three dollars per ticket, unlike in the UK, football is accessible to all.   

I arrived in the capital 48 hours earlier.  Lebanon is a country that has been steeped in political and religious complexity for over half a century, but it’s not as simplistic as portrayed in sensationalist media stories scribed by hacks’ whose media outlets are pushing their own political agenda.  No, this is a complex manifestation of religiously motivated antagonism, perpetual power struggles and outside interference; a Pandora’s Box that once fully opened, culminated into the hellish 1975-1990 civil war that altered the character of the country and the psyche of its people. Death and destruction consumed a nation that experienced tragedy on an industrial scale.  Just under 400,000 men, women and children were killed or injured in a country with a meagre population of around four million people, and the capital Beirut bore the brunt of it.  It is a compelling affair, with a plot full of intrigue, treachery, corruption, bribery, devastation, loose ends, white elephants and a motley crew of colourful characters, villains and heroes in unequal measures, many of whom had blood on their hands and whose infamy would catch up with them in later life.

Prior to the civil war, thanks to its French colonial masters, Beirut was referred to as the Paris of the Middle East; a cultural delight on the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean.  With its thousand-year-old ties to France, grand architecture, Roman ruins, Crusader castles, fine dining, high-end boutiques, millionaire playboys and insouciantly chic women, Lebanon’s capital city enjoyed a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous.  Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole and many other celebrities were regular visitors to the affluent Mediterranean city, but that was back in the day before the miseries and misfortunes of war were inflicted upon the Beirutis and their country.

Nowadays, post-war Beirut is accepted as a city in transition, and whilst restoration of a city that was pretty much razed to the ground is advanced, the mish-mash of isolated bullet-pocked buildings serve as a reminder that a man-made civil armed conflict is one of the worst catastrophes that mankind can inflict upon itself.  But the Lebanese have a stern make up.  They overcome, and Beirut’s extreme bounce-back-ability capacity ensures a cautious optimism.  Tower cranes dot the horizon and a construction frenzy has ensured new taller, more modern buildings dominate the once desolate downtown Beirut skyline.  The city is awash with trendy bars, clubs and restaurants, and the palm tree-lined Corniche, Beirut’s pride and joy, is a hive of activity that offers visitors an idyllic view of the Mediterranean and the summits of Mount Lebanon.  The atmosphere is serene and the surroundings and its inhabitants in this part of town scream urbane.  Once again, tourists, particularly the wealthy Arabs from the Gulf Region, are beginning to flock back to the country and it's capital city that never sleeps.

After scenes of terrible bloodshed in the war years, Beirut, with its historical past and newly found hedonistic lifestyle, is beginning to buzz again. The vast majority of Lebanese people have no interest in violence.  It’s not in their mindset.   They’re 24-hour party people who just enjoy life, which is why Lebanon will always survive. 



A multi-sectarian existence ensures politics and religion dominate every facet of Lebanese life.  This, coupled with a nonchalant acceptance of a political system that appears rigged to ensure the same politicians are re-elected on polling day and a political baton that is often passed down from one family member to another; it reeks of connivance.  But this is Beirut and the rules are…there are no rules!  Football and its own multi-sectarian fandom has become a convenient extension of the country’s politics. 

Football’s custodians have long since politicised the game and used it as a medium for politicians to popularise themselves with supporters and pedal their political and religious ideology, particularly during the post-war period when there was a clamour for power.  In return for financial backing, the Lebanese club’s wealthy patrons, aided and abetted by those in positions of influence, looked for support from the club’s fanbase during election time.  Eighteen Muslim and Christian sects dominate the Lebanese political landscape, with the most prominent of them affording a religious identity to the club it affiliates itself to. 

But Nejmeh, a name derived from the word star in Arabic, is an exception to that composition and the club shy away from religious identity.  Although the ‘Lighthouse Men’ have a predominantly Shia Muslim following, they are funded by a Sunni Muslim ownership and historically have always openly welcomed supporters from all faiths, making them the only high profile multi-sectarian club in the country, so it is important not to generalise.  Nejmeh is the only religion on match day and the place of worship is the stadium.  Trumped up stories about the derby being a hard line sectarian rivalry are an exaggerated media-driven myth. 

Rivals Al Ansar is a Sunni Muslim club with a staunch Sunni Muslim following and like Nejmeh can boast a working-class fan base.  Formed in 1951, the Greens were only promoted to the Premier League in 1968, where they endured a 20 year period of insignificance before winning their first Premier League crown in 1988, just as the civil war was coming to an end.  Only three teams contested the 1988 title, with both Tadamoun Beirut and Nejmeh withdrawing; Nejmeh due to FA bias in favour of Ansar, who went on to claim the title with just 18 points.  Ansar then went on to win a then world record 11 consecutive league titles between 1988-1999, making them the most successful club in Lebanese football. 

However, their post-war period of sustained success is cloaked in controversy and Nejmeh supporters stand by their claims that Al Ansar’s success was down to the influence of the Lebanese FA and their relationship with Ansar’s most prominent financial backer Rafic Hariri, a billionaire businessman and one of Lebanon’s most dominant and influential politicians.  Allegations of bribery, match-fixing and all other manner of corruption were levelled against the Lebanese FA President Rahif Alameh and his cohorts, but Lebanon, a country were corruption is culturally ingrained into society at every level, was too corrupt to care about corruption.  This was the catalyst for the toxic bitter cross-city rivalry that has makes the Beirut derby one of the most underrated derbies in world football.

Football was introduced to the Lebanese in the late 1800s and popularised by the influx of Armenians to Lebanon whilst still under the French Mandate after the First World War, and it fast became the nation’s national sport.  Nejmeh, the peoples club, was formed in 1945 by a committee of locals from different religious backgrounds, most notably the Daroub brothers, shortly after Lebanese independence. They were the country’s first none Christian football team and are based in the Manara district of Ras Beirut, a cross-sectarian neighbourhood in Beirut.   They were promoted to the Premier League in 1951 and won their first of eight league titles in 1973.

The 1970s is widely accepted as the golden era by many of the older Nejmeh supporters.  They’d established a vast countrywide fan base, were Lebanon’s most popular team and they’d begun to dominate a division that had been historically monopolised by Armenian teams or teams originating from Christian communities.  The 1974 season was cancelled as it had been on nine previous occasions, such were the complexities of Lebanese life, but Nejmeh retained their title in 1975 and their popularity grew.  In the April of their title-winning season, Pele guested for Nejmeh in an exhibition match against the Universities of France team, watched by a crowd said to be in the region of 50,000.  But only one week later, violence erupted in Beirut after the infamous ‘ayn al-Rummaneh’ bus shooting by members of the Kataeb Militia.  It was an atrocity that led to the outbreak of the civil war that consumed the nation for 15 bloody years.

The end of the civil war in 1990 coincided with Ansar’s rise to prominence after an enforced 12-year hiatus, and it laid the foundations for their bitterly resentful cross-city rivalry with popular neighbours Nejmeh.  With substantial financial backing from business tycoon Rafic Hariri, their wealthy patron who in 1992 went on to win the Prime Ministerial election, Ansar dominated the Lebanese football scene for over a decade.  In contrast, rivals Nejmeh was undergoing a period of transition.  The war had prevented their talented early 70s team from realising its true potential and now the club found themselves capitulating from within.  A prolonged period of incessant boardroom squabbling had a telling destabilising effect as the club struggled with recruitment and the overhauling of an ageing management team.  The ongoing feud with the Lebanese Football Association over alleged discrimination against them was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and triggered a mass demonstration that led to thousands of Nejmeh fans taking to the streets of Beirut to protest, demanding Government intervention. 

The division created by the Lebanese FA President’s alleged corruption and the ill feeling he propagated, has always perniciously resonated not just with Nejmeh and its fan base, but within the domestic game itself.  The hatred it generated between the two clubs is more palpable now than ever and the history between the two feuding rivals will ensure that it’s a historical loathing of one another that will never cease.

Conflict with the Lebanese FA can be traced back to the 1961 season when the FA cancelled the league campaign when Nejmeh were within touching distance of lifting their first title.  The feud was rekindled during the mid-80s when prominent FA members were elected without approval from the Nejmeh boardroom, and there was to be no cessation in hostilities between the two warring factions for almost two further decades. During this period, fed up Nejmeh supporters, incensed by the FA and their bias, were involved in regular bouts of politically charged crowd disorder.  Each incident led to sanctions, including stiff financial penalties imposed upon the club and supporters barred from attending matches.  It was a financial burden that the club could not sustain if Nejmeh was to continue to compete at the top level.  

Despite Ansar’s success, Nejmeh continued to be the country’s most popular team.  Support in the capital is practically equal, but Nejmeh cast their net far and wide and have a sizeable fan base on the outskirts of the city and beyond.  The perception of the club repeatedly being the victim of collusion and the unshakeable sense of injustice it fortified, served only to increase their popularity, and in the 1999-2000 season, against all the odds, Nejmeh repaid the loyalty shown by their ever-expanding fanatical fan base, by ending Ansar’s domination and delivering their third league title.  An unexpected success that once again boosted Nejmeh’s nationwide popularity and upheld the club’s motto; ‘from Beirut, for the whole of Lebanon.’  

The following year, Nejmeh’s long-running feud with the FA came to its conclusion by default, after a political dispute with the Head of Parliament enforced the resignation of club nemesis Rahif Alameh and the dissolution of the rest of the Lebanese FA.  Typically, by Lebanese standards, the 2000-01 season was abandoned but Nejmeh pushed on the following season and retained the title to continue their superiority complex over arch-rivals Ansar.  But success comes at a price.  Lebanon successfully hosted the 2000 Asian Cup, a prestigious competition that further fuelled a burgeoning economy. The tournament’s popularity generated unprecedented amounts of financial sponsorship into the game and helped the continued rejuvenation of the nation’s favourite past time. 

The knock on effect of Lebanon’s post-war thriving capitalist economy, the financial windfall generated by virtue of lucrative advertising revenue from broadcasting rights and the country’s Asian Cup coup persuaded businessmen, particularly those with political aspirations, to continue to invest their disposable income, much of it said to be ill-gotten, into football clubs. Lebanese football continued in its ascendency and with the game awash with money it helped to improve the standard, levelled the playing fields for some of the clubs and created a more competitive top flight division.  But with other teams finding themselves wealthy patrons and access to superior financial resources not previously afforded to them, it meant that Nejmeh needed to increase their seasonal budget if they were to continue to lord it over the rest of the division.  Despite the games improving financial stability, the club had secretly reached a point of financial unsustainability and was unofficially a club in crisis.  Whilst cooperating with Beirut’s political elite, Nejmeh wasn’t a club that was obligated or indebted to them or their wealthy patrons.  Nejmeh is the peoples club; a club of the people. 

Omar Ghandour, Nejmeh club President of 34 years, announced his resignation in 2003, citing the unsustainable financial burden of maintaining the club’s success as the reason for his exit.  For numerous reasons, the club was running at a loss and financial backing from the boardroom was in steep decline.  Nejmeh was combusting from within and drastic action was required if the club was to continue to operate at the level befitting of the club’s history.  In March 2003, after fraught negotiations that split both the boardroom and the fan base, the club announced Ansar’s wealthy patron Rafic Hariri as its new owner.  The man whose wealth and position of influence is widely believed by many to be solely responsible for putting Nejmeh to the sword was now also the chief financial backer of his club’s greatest adversary.  The boardroom was restructured and the fan base divided into for and against camps but the deal went through and the club opened another chapter. 

With the appointment of Hariri came the inevitable success story.  The club’s Al Manara stadium underwent extensive renovation at great expense and the team delivered consecutive title successes between 2003-05.  But on the 14 February during the 2004-05 title-winning season, after barely two years in charge, the former Prime Minister was assassinated by a truck bomber who detonated over 2,000lbs of TNT, destroying his motorcade, killing Hariri and 21 others.  The following week the club changed the name of their Al Manara Stadium to the ‘Rafic Hariri Stadium’ in his honour and his second son and current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, said by Forbes Magazine to be worth $1.5 billion, slipped seamlessly into the hot seat. 

As a result of the assassination, Lebanon was plunged into political turmoil and football developed into a hotbed of fandom radicalisation and political division.  Every weekend saw a deterioration in supporter behaviour as the game became consumed with politics and football lost its way, unwittingly acting as an agent of mass indoctrination. Beirut followed suit and with political executions, car bombs and random acts of nationwide terrorism becoming a regular occurrence, the country teetered once again on the brink of another civil war. 

The 2006 July War with Israel exacerbated matters further and widened the political divide, fuelling political and sectarian clashes between football supporters who were being used by politicians as a political force. The government reacted by banning all football supporters from stadiums indefinitely.

The ramifications of Lebanon’s destabilisation had far-reaching consequences.  The economy, which has declined further due to the influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, nosedived and many of the games financial backers withdrew their support and abandoned the football teams reliant upon their finances.  Star players were an expensive commodity that could no longer be accommodated and so they followed suit. 

In 2012, spectators were allowed back into the stadiums after a five-year ban but a crowd of only 108 turned up to see the first game.  Bereft of finance and vision, football was wilting and without adequate funding and a capable administration it would wither and fade, before eventually ceasing to exist to any level of prominence.  Ansar and Nejmeh, Lebanon’s two most successful teams, have not been immune from the game’s capitulation.  Neither can be considered the dominant force they once were.  Druze supported Safa and Hezbollah’s Al Ahed, have won all but two Premier League titles between them since 2007 and Al Ahed are strong favourites to complete the season unbeaten and lift the 2017-18 title for the second consecutive season with only two games to go. 

Corruption, including match-fixing scandals, amateurishness, political unrest, lack of vision and poor governance have all played their part in the game’s demise.  Politics and religious identity take precedence over progress and winning and losing.  Politics in Lebanon is big business, particularly at a time of socio-political turmoil.  It’s a very profitable industry and football has vast political potential.

Regrettably, modern day football in Lebanon is now a shadow of its former self.  The match-fixing scandal that dogged the 2014 World Cup campaign and saw 2 players receive lifetime bans and 22 others fined and banned for match-fixing was just another nail in the coffin.  Domestically, attendances have been decimated.  At the turn of the century, Nejmeh’s average crowd was in excess of 20,000 and up to 50,000 would pack the stadium out for a title win or a derby game.  Whereas the average gate for Nejmeh today is around 7,000 for a league match and 20,000 for the derby with Ansar.  With the exception of Nejmeh, Ansar (average approx. 5,000 a game) and Ahed (average approx. 5,000 a game), the rest of the teams in the Premier League average only around 500 supporters a game over the course of a season.   The game’s ruling body need to buck that trend if domestic football is to progress, but money is scarce, facilities are in decline and it’s still very much accepted as a low-quality semi-professional game.  Most players earn a paltry $1500 a month and many are forced into a second job to boost their income.  

There is no escaping the fact that corruption, economics, religion, politics and security issues have all played their part in the downfall of domestic football, but there is also a generation of Lebanese football fans that have been lost to the lure of the modern football phenomenon that has been the scourge of rank and file supporters all over Europe. 

Football is big business in Lebanon.  Just not Lebanese football.  Here, football fans care more about the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga than they do about their own league.  Manchester United was the first official overseas supporters club in Lebanon, but now Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan and PSG all have official Lebanese supporters groups.  You are more likely to see Beirutis in kits from teams in other countries, counterfeit of course than those of their hometown clubs Nejmeh and Ansar.  Sadly, It’s a worldwide issue that prays on supporters from countries with leagues of less significance and drains them of income.  It has become an unsolvable problem that poses more questions than answers and is unquestionably hampering the development of the game. 

Back at the stadium, I was able to hook up with my host, 30-year-old Mohamad Gharbieh.  Avid Nejmeh supporter Mohamad has been a student of the game since the USA World Cup in 1994 and from then on in he knew football would be an active part of his life.  He watched his first ever live game as an innocent eight-year-old.  It was the derby Ansar v Nejmeh and his experience meant his predisposed allegiance to Ansar was hijacked, instead preferring to swim against the communal tide and pledge his loyalty to Ansar’s bitter rivals in burgundy red and white. “I was raised to be an Ansar fan, as my uncles’ supported Ansar, but in this game, I loved Nejmeh, the way their fans were, it was something I just loved,” said Mohamad.  The rest is history. 

We met in the south stand and Mohamad, one of the founder members of Lebanon’s first Ultra group Ultras Supernova, introduced me to fellow Nejmeh fanatics Dr Ali, Hasan, Hatem and some of the other members of the group.  Mohamad tells me about his introduction to the Ultra movement, “I‘ve been watching Ultras and fan scene since 2012, and in 2014 I moved to Moscow to work with RT, and there I was an active supporter with CSKA Moscow Ultras.  When I came back to Beirut in 2017 I wanted to create a movement for my local team and after one year, I, together with a group of friends decided to launch the group Ultras Supernova, because it’s 2018 and we don’t have any real Ultras group in Lebanon.”  Formed in February 2018, Nejmeh’s Ultras Supernova have signalled the start of the Ultra movement in Lebanese football.  With an average age of around 26, they are highly motivated to succeed and have introduced a unique sporting subculture to the Lebanese league that has been at the forefront of fan culture in Europe and South America for around seven decades.  Supernova’s aim is to create a fandom that reflects their passion for Nejmeh.  
 





It’s a full two hours before kick-off but there must be at least 10,000 fans packed into the south stand.  There are two capos to the left of me.  Both have megaphones and are elevated above the supporters on platforms.  They’re busy warming up the crowd and organising their sections, whilst distributing Nejmeh coloured flags, balloons and banners to supporters below them.  Ultras Supernova occupy a section in the lower South Curva directly behind the goal.  Today they’re all kitted out in black Ultras Supernova t-shirts and it isn’t long before head of security brings over a delegation to ask what it’s all about.  It’s nothing sinister.  Just an identity.  It’s Ultra culture.  If you know, you know.

Whilst the Ultras were busy organising themselves for kick-off I took the opportunity to head for the top of the south stand and take in the ambience.  Looking out on to the stadium forecourt the crowd approaching the turnstiles was now biblical.  A sea of Burgundy and white as far back as the eye could see descended towards the South en masse.  The noise was incessant and scuffles broke out as security struggled to cope with the congestion. 

This was a derby of huge importance to Nejmeh.  Anything other than a win would be disastrous, but a win would leave the destination of the title in their own hands with only two games to go.  In contrast, Ansar were destined for mid-table mediocrity but safe in the knowledge that anything other than a loss would almost certainly deprive Nejmeh of a ninth league crown.  Although it was Ansar’s home game, only around 8,000 supporters were expected to attend.  And rumour had it that today was the day Ansar supporters were set to launch Tifosi, their own Ultras group.

An hour before kick-off and the South Curva had swelled to capacity, leaving the West Stand to soak up the growing influx of burgundy-clad fans and swell the Nejmeh ranks to around 25,000 strong.  And then it started.  First, it was the drumming.  Followed by orchestrated chanting.  Followed by the synchronised clapping.  Followed by the smoke pots.  Followed by the firecrackers.  It was an atmosphere befitting of the occasion and was sure to increase in volume, colour and intensity.  In contrast, the 8,000 Ansar supporters still trickling into their seats were quite muted and not particularly responsive.  The North Curva looked bare. I expected more from the supporters of the country’s most successful team because it’s derby day and derby days should always be about the occasion, not the league standing.  This is the most important date in the calendar.  For 90 minutes life is set aside.  It’s about quenching the thirst for victory.  It’s about creating heroes and villains. It’s about the feeling of pride.  It’s about the claiming of bragging rights.  It’s about basking in the glory of victory.  It’s about being part of the moment.  Nothing compares.







Kick-off was upon us.  It’s show time.  The long lengths of burgundy, black and white banderas running over the heads of the crowd from the top to the bottom of the Curva gave a South American feel to it.  As the players entered the stadium they were greeted by a deafening roar of approval.  The noise is constant and the crowd are buoyed by the relentless drumbeat.  It’s impressive.  And then came the aesthetics.  Smoke pots are held aloft.  Yellow, green, pink, white and blue plumes of coloured smoke pollute the sunny spring afternoon air, but they’re all consumed when Supernova ignite the military issue canister type smoke grenades.  Emitting a dense orange smoke, it almost instantaneously conceals everything within range.  But it is only momentarily.  As the smoke clouds slowly dissipate, the Ultras become visible again.  Giant burgundy and black chequed flags are waved with great gusto.  The drumbeat is incessant and the noise from firecrackers raises the decibel level ten-fold.  Supernova has arrived.  They’re caught in the moment.  It’s a heaving throng of passion, unity and commitment.  This is what they are about.  No half half scarves, no prawn sandwiches and with the exception of the English contingent there was no mass influx of no tourists to dilute the atmosphere either.  Just die hard like-minded Nejmeh supporters who win, lose or draw devote their existence to the team. 









Because of the shenanigans in the South, I’d missed Ultras Tifosi’s opening salvo in the North and as the green and white smoke cleared. It was the TIFOSO banner that dominated the crammed sector to the right of the goal.  But with only a paltry 8,000 home supporters, it’s the more vocal, more vibrant and more imaginative Nejmeh supporters who dominated proceedings from the stands.

With the game now underway, it’s Ansar who start the game on the front foot and the Nejmeh keeper is clearly the busier of the two, but it’s a typical derby game played with fire and brimstone rather than craft and guile.  It’s a keenly contested affair that keeps over 30,000 fans on their toes and both sets of supporters are happy to crash through their setlists.  In between songs, the Nejmeh supporters keep themselves entertained by unleashing a relentless barrage of water bottles and firecrackers towards the legion of Lebanese Stormtroopers deployed to keep order and they force them into a hasty retreat beyond the running track, before eventually finding sanctuary pitch side, just out of reach.  The history of conflict with security forces is an issue the Ultras are keen to address.  A good relationship with the police is conducive to the ultrafication of the stadium.  “We try not to clash with the police from now,” insisted Mohamad.  Stadium violence will lead to fan oppression and curtail the fandom these supporters are trying to achieve.

The referee signals the end of a typically uneventful first half and the fans take a well-earned rest.  The calm before the storm.  As the referee blows his whistle to start the second half…we go again.  I’d been given prior warning of what was about to commence.  The piece de resistance. Cue scenes.  Right on kick-off, the Supernova group lit up scores of flares and random smoke pots to create Lebanon’s first ever pyro show. The smell of sulphur is thick in the air.  Visibility is dimmed.  But they’ve created a real buzz in the South.  Football supporting is not just about noise and passion, it’s also about aesthetics.  No pyro, no party!  Supernova’s derby exploits have been planned for weeks.  It has been a monumental group effort.  From obtaining the flares via a source over 80km’s away and smuggling them into the stadium to orchestrating the whole show.  But it’s been worth it. All we need now is that elusive goal. 

 





Penalty to Ansar.  That wasn’t in the script.  The crowd are silenced for the first time this afternoon.  They know the consequences of anything less than three points.  But the keeper saves it.  The South celebrates like they’ve scored.  That save has buoyed the crowd no end; Nejmeh Nejmeh Nejmeh chant the South, but Ansar are clearly the better team and they’re dominating proceedings.  Nejmeh just cannot get a foothold in the game but it doesn’t affect the crowd dynamic, they’re resolute and their support remains unwavering.  Then just as calm returned to the South, the referee once again pointed to the spot.  Another penalty to Ansar.  Most of the Supernova lads couldn’t watch and turned their back to the pitch.  Heads in hands they waited for the crowd reaction.  Unbelievably, Ansar misses their second penalty of the game.  Cue scenes.   Supporters of all ages are overcome with emotion but football supporting is rarely rational.  Fans fist pumped, danced, hugged, shook and kissed each other and then hugged, danced and fist pumped some more.  The giant flag wavers found a second wind and the insults and gesticulating aimed at the Ansar fans in the North was noisy and relentless in equal measures. 

And the footballing Gods hadn’t finished with their cruel horseplay.  With only minutes left on the clock, Nejmeh, albeit against the run of play, found their way through the Ansar defence and looked to have snatched a late winner as the ball was coolly dispatched into the back of the Ansar goal.  Cue scenes of momentary madness in the South, but it was abruptly halted by the linesman, who deemed the strike off-side.  And then scenes of a different kind.  Shortly after the disallowed goal, scores of young Palestinian refugees from the nearby refugee camp found their way into the stadium, navigated their way under the razor wire and invaded the running track at the back of the goal in front of the South Stand.  The remainder of the game was played out against a backdrop of unrestrained disorder.  The youngsters threw missiles into the Nejmeh crowd provoking them into retaliation.  Seats and water bottles rained down on to the running track but were returned with interest whilst the police stood idly by showing great restraint.





The referee blew for full time, Ansar players and their 8,000 supporters celebrated together like they’d won the league and cup double, the disorder petered out and with the exception of the North Curva, a sudden calmness swept over the stadium as the masses in the South and West sectors exited the stands.  There was no dialogue.  There was no inquest.  There was no anger.  There was no goodbyes.  Just a weary exit.  Mohamad and the boys were visibly disappointed, dismayed and both physically and mentally drained.  But this is football. A game of emotion.  The high energy their fan movement brings to the stadium is immeasurable and they’ll continue to expand and promote the Ultra culture in the coming weeks, months and years.  This is support in its primitive form in a country where stadiums have no gentrification because quite rightly, football is a sport for the people and Nejmeh are the people’s club.  Win, lose or draw, these trailblazers will be back.  Next week.  Next month.  Next season.  They always are.  It’s what they do.  This is just the start of a long journey.  The beginning of the beginning.  Salute.


Read 4903 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 11:39
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