Lebanon begin their qualification journey for the 2026 FIFA World Cup as the shadow of war looms large for them, as well as their opponents Palestine.
Under normal circumstances, Lebanese fans would gather in Beirut to cheer their heroes on towards North America and, perhaps, a first-ever appearance on the global stage.
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However, these are not normal times. The Cedars kick off their campaign against opponents whose homeland faces incessant bombing by Israel, leading to the death of 11,500 Palestinians since the war began on October 7.
Amid concerns that the devastating conflict could spread to Lebanon, the game has been switched from Beirut to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
For the first time, the World Cup in 2026 will feature at least eight teams from Asia instead of the usual four. As Lebanon made it to the final 12 teams in the qualification round in 2022, it would not need a huge improvement for them to knock on the doors of football’s big stage.
“This game could not be played in Lebanon so, unfortunately, it is best that it is where it is right now,” Wael Chehayeb, a member of the Lebanese Football Association’s executive committee, told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone hopes that the war doesn’t expand here [Lebanon] as they can’t afford it.”
Football can bring joy
Years of mismanagement and allegations of serious corruption from political leaders have seen Lebanon’s economy come close to collapse.
The massive explosion at the Beirut port in 2020 resulted in at least 218 deaths, injuries to 7,000 others and left more than 300,000 people homeless. It also caused an estimated $3.8-4.6bn in material damage.
It symbolised the general malaise in the country, where the currency has hit historic lows, power blackouts are the norm and inflation has hit hard, leading to public distrust in the government.
“There is the economic crisis and add that to the war in the south, which might extend to more areas, people are frightened seeing what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank,” said Chehayeb.
Chehayeb says that, in such difficult times, football can be a source of unity and hope.
The country erupted in joyous celebrations when Lebanon defeated the mighty South Korea in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Getting to, or even close to, the World Cup would be a monumental achievement for the country of almost six million.
“The Lebanese people are in a state of worry and uncertainty, so national team’s victories could bring joy to many,” he said.
In the last few months under coach Nikola Jurcevic, the Croatian who was appointed last year, Lebanon have looked to move away from the pragmatic and defensive style from the 2022 qualification campaign.
A 1-0 win over India in September was sandwiched between three narrow defeats away to Thailand, Montenegro and the United Arab Emirates, but there are signs that things could improve.
War in Gaza has ‘changed everything’
While the Palestinians continue to play while war rages at home, there are worries for Lebanon’s players, too.
“Our players are focused on making the final round of qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup as well as the 2027 Asian Cup, but that does not mean they are unaffected [by the war],” Lebanon’s national team manager Rachid Nassar told Al Jazeera.
Veteran midfielder Mohamad Haidar is among the most concerned.
The 34-year-old hails from the southern town of Tayr Debba, which is closer to the border with Israel than the capital, Beirut, and hence is susceptible to an Israeli invasion from the south.
Apart from the obvious concern for family and friends, Haidar is concerned about business interests in Beirut which involve playing areas and an academy.
“There is concern about the project and the source of our livelihood,” Haidar said, adding that the situation in Gaza has “changed everything”.
“It’s different and the anxiety is greater, but we will do everything we can to try and shine a light in the darkness and make the Lebanese people happy,” he said.
‘Lebanon and Palestine are equal’
While the country could do with some sporting success to lift the spirits, the entire football set-up in Lebanon needs the national team to perform well.
As the general economy has faltered, the sport’s financial fortunes have followed and, domestically, there is little money available.
Local football officials told Al Jazeera that the Lebanese federation was able to support clubs financially after the pandemic with revenue generated from the exploits of the national team and their extended run in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
Lebanon reached the final round, which meant 10 extra lucrative games against heavyweights such as Iran and South Korea and extra prize money from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.
“It’s obvious that the economic crisis affects all sports,” said Rachid.
“The Lebanese Football Association does not receive any help from the government.”
The situation is far worse now.
Lebanese Premier League games are played in empty stadiums due to security concerns and the last season ended in controversy when a title decider between Al-Ahed and Al-Ansar was halted for at least 15 minutes due to crowd trouble.
It is no surprise then, that players seek alternative sources of revenue as Haidar has.
However, the best way for the game and players to make money in the coming months is to go all the way to the World Cup.
In the second round which starts on Thursday, 36 teams have been divided into nine groups of four. The top two from each group will advance to the final round where 18 teams will compete for eight automatic World Cup places.
Lebanon and Palestine are grouped together with Australia and Bangladesh.
Australia, ranked 27th in the world, are expected to be in the lead and Bangladesh (ranked 183rd) could languish at the bottom, barring major upsets.
It could leave Lebanon (ranked 104th) and Palestine (ranked 96th) competing for the second spot.
A win in Sharjah would be a big step towards the final round.
“I think Lebanon and Palestine are about equal,” Palestine’s head coach Makram Daboub told Al Jazeera.
“If we can win this game then it will really help our chances of going to the next stage but we know that Lebanon are thinking the same. It will be a difficult game for both teams.”