Lebanon advanced for the first time in its soccer history to the fourth and final Asian qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup despite losing this week to the United Arab Emirates. In doing so, the Lebanese squad cemented soccer’s role as a rallying point for a country divided and scarred by years of bitter civil war afraid that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian-tainted brutal crackdown could spill into the streets of Lebanese cities.
In a country where almost every facet of life is defined by sectarian fault lines, Lebanon’s advance had people from all walks of life glued to television sets and computer screens in offices, university lecture halls, sports bars and living rooms. Schools closed early for students to be able to watch the match.
The Lebanese success even if it was by default strengthened soccer’s unifying role two months after the national team’s defeat of South Korea in December brought tens of thousands into the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut waving the country's red and white flag with a green cedar in the middle. As Lebanon scored against South Korea sectarian chants in Beirut’s Cite Sportive stadium were replaced with roars of "Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah'' - "For God's Sake, Lebanon Come On'' as fans belonging to the country’s multiple sects and political groups united behind their national squad.
Nonetheless, fighting last month between supporters of Mr. Assad, and those who oppose his regime in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli signaled just how fragile that sense of national unity is. Three people were killed and many more were injured in 24 hours of fighting.
Meanwhile, in a weird twist of events, Lebanese fans attending Wednesday’s match in Abu Dhabi against the UAE spotlighted a key weakness of soccer in the Gulf that has fuelled some of the criticism of Qatar’s winning in late 2010 of the right to host the 2022 World Cup: the lack of a fan base eager to come to the stadium to cheer their team.
The estimated 6,000 Lebanese fans outnumbered the Emiratis on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan Stadium. To be sure with an estimated 100,000 Lebanese expats resident in the UAE many of the Lebanese did not have to travel far for the match. Nonetheless, news reports said that Lebanese supporters had come from as far as Brazil and Britain to support their team.
The Gulf News reported that Emiratis boycotted the match because their team did not stand a chance irrespective of whether it defeated Lebanon or not of reaching the World Cup finals as it had done once before in 1990.
While that may be true it evades the structural problem with filling stadiums in a part of the world where the local population often constitutes a minority of the total population. In the UAE, locals account for at best 15% of the population whose vast majority are expatriates.
A recent survey by Abu Dhabi daily The National concluded that the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium of the emirate’s Al Jazira Sports & Culture club was among the UAE’s most popular sport venues. The stadium owes it popularity only in part to its futuristic design that lacks a runway track and allows fans to be seated closer to the field.
Equally important is the fact that Al Jazira has some of the highest attendance figures in the Gulf because its former chief executive officer, Englishman Phil Anderton, a former marketeer for Scottish Rugby, Coca Cola and Procter & Gamble, was willing to go places others in the Gulf shied away from because they were afraid of upsetting the fragile demographic apple cart.
In a bid to raise match attendance and integrate his club with the community, Mr. Anderton reached out to the expatriate population – a move Gulf clubs controlled by the region’s ruling families have avoided out of fear that this would give foreigners a stake that could encourage them over time to demand greater rights.
Mr. Anderton’s strategy worked. Within a year attendance figures at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had quadrupled drawing a record crowd of 28,164 for a match against Al Wasl. Redevelopment of the stadium has increased its capacity from 15,000 to 42,000. Ironically, the increased number of expats has sparked greater enthusiasm among Emiratis.
"The number of Al Jazira's home fans is really impressive as they really get a good crowd. You enjoy the game thrice as much than the stadium being more than half empty. Also, we see a lot of expats at their games so it's great that they are showing an interest in the Pro League,” The National quoted rival Al Nasr fan Faisal Hamadi as saying.
“We looked at who was coming and who wasn't and why. There was a lack of awareness and a range of misconceptions - they thought it was amateur or for Emiratis only. From this we developed a brand position to encourage people interested in football to come to the club. With the transitory nature few felt a connection so we are trying to unite the city through the club with the tag line ‘Pride of Abu Dhabi'. We developed a full marketing plan with advertising and PR as well as going into local schools and communities to try and change perceptions and raise awareness,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview last year.
“We showcased our star players and organized tournaments for the community in our facilities. Once we encouraged people to come to the games and feel part of the club we had to deliver a product. We needed to make sure that we treated people well when they came, with food in a clean well sign-posted stadium and then we needed to put on a good show where football is at the core of other entertainment options - it's more an American model,” he added.
Mr. Anderton’s approach broke with Gulf practice in more than one way. Arguing that teams can only exploit their home advantage if they have the crowd cheering them on during matches, he also argued in favor of turning clubs dependent on the politically motivated largesse of their royal and tribal owners into commercially viable entities. “Historically clubs here didn't have the requirement to go into the commercial side of things but we want to develop sponsorship, merchandise, ticketing and hospitality from using our facilities 365 days a year via leasing in order to set down a sustainable business model, which inevitably leads to success on the field,” Mr. Anderton said.