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Page last updated at 21:25 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 22:25 UK

Lebanon's political rivals meet in football 'friendly'

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No football fans were allowed to attend the game

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

Rival political leaders in Lebanon have marked the 35th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war with a football match to show their unity.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri captained his team against a side led by an MP from the Shia Hezbollah movement.

Commentators had to stifle their laughter as the unfit politicians quickly ran out of breath.

A unity government was formed by Mr Hariri's majority coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition in November.

The agreement ended five months of deadlock following June's general election which had threatened Lebanon's stability.

'One team'

"We are one team" was the slogan for the 30-minute friendly played by ministers and MPs to commemorate the bloody 1975-1990 civil war, which left more than 150,000 people dead.

Mr Hariri, the Western-backed prime minister, was the captain of the team in red. Their rivals - wearing white - were led by Ali Ammar of Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria.

Saad Hariri (right) runs at a member of the opposition
Like all football matches in Lebanon, it was not open to the public

Both teams were mixed, with representatives of almost all of Lebanon's rival political camps.

"In Lebanon, polemics is the national sport, and now we are using real sport to overcome differences. It's important to show that not everything has to be politicised," said one of the players, Information Minister Tarek Mitri.

"I haven't played football since I was 17," he added.

Almost immediately, the 30-minute match revealed that fitness was not one of the strengths of Lebanon's current crop of politicians.

The game was broadcast live by several national television channels.

Some of the commentators had to stop themselves from laughing at the sight of their pot-bellied leaders running after the ball and, very quickly, running out of breath in the curtailed match.

"They hit the ground more often than the ball," was how one of country's news sites described the action.

It was not until the end of the match that the goals came - two from 29-year-old MP Sami Gemayal, the youngest member of Mr Hariri's team.

Paralysed government

"It's cute and very funny," said Chantal Bassil, the wife of Lebanon's energy minister, who was watching on the sidelines.

They are capable of having a laugh but they are not capable of solving our problems. By playing this ridiculous game they are laughing at us
Roula

"They are not very professional, but they don't get much time to practice so they are doing alright," she added.

Mrs Bassil was among a handful of spectators - most of them diplomats and politicians, including President Michel Suleiman - who were allowed to attend the game, which was held at Beirut's main stadium.

Like all football matches in Lebanon, it was not open to the public.

Sectarian and political divisions in Lebanon remain so deep and tensions are so high that football fans are not allowed to attend matches.

The authorities fear that clashes between supporters of opposing teams could spill onto the streets and soon escalate.

New Lebanese cabinet meets (10 November 2009)
The formation of Lebanon's unity cabinet took more than four months

The rival political leaders, some of whom met on the pitch, have failed to deal with the tensions and allowed them to cripple recent governments.

And this is one of the reasons why some people in the capital said they felt Tuesday's football match was hypocritical, even offensive.

"They are capable of having a laugh but they are not capable of solving our problems. By playing this ridiculous game they are laughing at us," said Roula, a 21-year-old biology student.

From endless problems in healthcare and education, to erratic electricity supplies and failure to agree on foreign and defense policies, disagreements between politicians affect all aspects of life in Lebanon.

And few here believe any of these problems can be solved on a football pitch.



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