BEIRUT: Lebanese put their differences aside Tuesday to celebrate a stunning World Cup qualifying victory by the national football team that provided a temporary respite from the country’s increasingly menacing political climate.
A 2-1 win over fancied South Korea at Beirut’s Camille Chamoun Stadium left Lebanon on the brink of an unprecedented final round of qualification for the 2014 tournament in Brazil and prompted a rare display of national unity.
“Delighted [and] proud of our national football team,” Prime Minister Najib Mikati posted on his Twitter feed after the final whistle. “Congrats to all.”
“My congratulations go to each and every player on the national team, to the Lebanese Football Federation and to all my countrymen and women,” former Prime Minister Saad Hariri tweeted. “[O]ur hopes are high, Lebanon will qualify for the first time to the World Cup.”
Mikati invited the players to the Grand Serail where they were congratulated by Cabinet members. He said the victory offered an example for Lebanon’s warring politicians.
“When we asked the team who scored the winning goal, they responded: ‘We all did,’” Mikati said. “We learned a lesson from this short visit, that the government should be a unified team working toward one goal: Success and winning.”
The players were each awarded LL10 million ($6,645) by Cabinet for the performance.
Tuesday’s victory brought temporary relief from the political storm building on the country’s controversial role over Syria. Lebanon voted against the Arab League’s decision over the weekend to suspend Syria from the organization as a punishment for its ongoing security crackdown, a stance that drew condemnation from the March 14 coalition and the international community.
In addition, the issue of funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon remains unresolved and could subject the economy to international sanctions if a United Nations deadline for financial assistance is missed.
Beirut was rendered a virtual standstill by Tuesday’s game, with several schools closing early and thousands of residents following events on television sets at work or at home.
An estimated 40,000 fans braved the poor weather to witness in person what constitutes the best ever win by the national team. First-half goals from Ali al-Saadi and Abbas Atwi were enough to see off a South Korea side ranked 112 places above Lebanon by world footballing body FIFA.
President Michel Sleiman arrived at the stadium at half-time and took to the pitch after the final whistle to congratulate the players, some of whom broke down in tears at victory over the former World Cup semifinalists.
A heavy security presence crowded the stands, with Lebanese Army, Internal Security Forces and riot police squads on hand to smother any signs of unrest. The game passed without major security incident, no small feat considering all spectators were banned from attending domestic league matches following a spate of football-related violence in the middle of last decade.
Celebrities from singer Haifa Wehbe to Miss Lebanon Yara Khoury-Mikhael congratulated the national team, who with a win over the United Arab Emirates in February will progress to the next round of Asian World Cup qualification.
Fans began streaming into Camille Chamoun more than two hours before kickoff, taking advantage of the free admission. Some rival Hezbollah and Future Movement followers chanted some political slogans before the match but both sets eventually united chants to spur on the Lebanese players. The final whistle was greeted with a wall of sound as cheers, drums and fireworks set the soundtrack for a pitch invasion by delirious fans.