Page last updated at 22:21 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Syria-Lebanon politics on the pitch

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Sidon, Lebanon

Lebanese protesters called for the withdrawal of Syria in 2005
Anti-Syrian protests erupted in 2005

The upbeat tune of the Syrian national anthem echoed through the empty stadium overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the Lebanese city of Sidon.

Dozens of soldiers with machine guns guarded every entrance.

As the Lebanese and Syrian footballers listened to their anthems they raised their heads high and focused their eyes on rows of empty white chairs.

The only spectators at this Asia Cup qualifier were a handful of journalists and a few officials from the football federation.

"Football is political here and security has to be tight," one of the federation officials explained.

It is because of politics that Syria and Lebanon have not played each other at home in years.

Previous matches took place elsewhere in the Middle East.

We were treated with intentional carelessness by our hosts.

Bahaa al-Omary
Syrian football official

The fact that this game happened was, observers say, a sign that the relationship between the two neighbours is improving.

But there were also plenty of reminders of how far things still have to go.

No-one failed to notice the irony of the choice of venue - the Rafik Hariri stadium - named after Lebanon's former prime minister who was killed in a car bomb in 2005.

While Syria denied any involvement in the assassination, tens of thousands took to the streets of Beirut and blamed Damascus for the killing.

The combination of public protest and international pressure forced Syria to end its 30-year military and political occupation of Lebanon.

Three years on, the two sides have finally agreed to create diplomatic relations.

This week Damascus approved the first ever Lebanese ambassador to Syria, embassies are about to open, and as the footballers met on the pitch, Lebanon's Defence Minister Elias Murr held talks in Damascus.

A Lebanese policeman outside the building housing the new Syrian embassy in Beirut
Syria recently opened an embassy in Beirut
Only recently Mr Murr's visit to Syria would have been impossible to imagine.

In 2005 Mr Murr escaped an assassination attempt, which he blamed on Syrian intelligence agents.

But Wednesday's football game showed once again just how difficult it will be to rebuild trust.

After winning the match 2-0, one of the Syrian football officials went on Lebanese television to complain about the hosts.

Poisoning claim

"We were treated with intentional carelessness by our hosts.

"There is no excuse for it, and brotherly countries should not be dealt in that way," Bahaa al-Omary later told the BBC.

Mr Omary said that on the eve of the game eight Syrian footballers got food poisoning and were taken to hospital.

The Syrian team doctor found the poisoning "highly suspicious".

Lebanese officials were quick to promise an investigation, but whether in politics or football, the essence of the Syrian-Lebanese relations still lies in a deep and all-pervasive lack of trust.

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