In 1978 I was seven and I knew very little about football. But hearing the adults and my older cousins talk about the World Cup that summer made me curious. I remember trying to match their enthusiasm but it wasn’t easy, not least because we didn’t have a television in those days. My father, a military man both by profession and disposition, regarded them as unnecessary distractions.
So I developed a non-committal way of talking about football, taking my cues from what others said. The West Germans play like a machine. The Argentinians are so fast. Did you see how the Brazilians were playing like dancers? The clichés abounded and were easy to repeat. The player names were strange and difficult to pronounce, but there was the Brazilian player nicknamed Dinamite. I was familiar with dynamite, we were all familiar with dynamite. These were the innocent days of the civil war, before bomb-makers had graduated to the more sophisticated TNT.
It’s that one little detail that reminds me of how inextricably linked the World Cup and the civil war are in my mind. Three months before the 1978 World Cup, Israel had invaded south Lebanon in an attempt to wipe out the PLO from Lebanon, beginning a decades-long sequence of invasions and attacks on my country.
A week after the end of the World Cup the Syrian army began pounding Christian areas with its artillery, fundamentally changing the dynamics of the then three-year-old civil war and marking the beginning of a different era. Little did I know it, but that one month in June 1978 was an oasis of calm before the civil war became more intense and complicated.
I did eventually manage to watch one game, the final between Argentina and the Netherlands. After much pleading with my father he allowed me to go and watch it at my aunt’s house. I remember very little of the game itself, but one detail remains vividly present in my mind. At the end of the game after Argentina won, the players dived into a pool of water near the pitch in celebration. I haven’t been able to find any footage of this, but it’s very clear in mind.
By 1982 I had built up my football knowledge, spending some of my weekly allowance to buy cheap Lebanese football magazines. The black and white images were poorly printed but they were sufficient to give me a rudimentary knowledge of the big teams. And of course, there were the Panini stickers which we traded passionately in our circles.
The tournament started on the 13th of June. On the 6th of June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in a massive air, land and sea operation that unleashed a wave of destruction that was far beyond anything my country had seen until then despite the long civil war. On the 9th of June, Israel attacked the Soviet-made Syrian air defence network deployed in the Beqa’a Valley which was followed by an air battle that ended with Israel shooting down 90 Syrian aircraft.
We watched the entire battle from the rooftops in my hometown Zahle, which sat at the shoulder of the mountains overlooking the Beqa’a Valley. We watched with a sense of awe, spectators in a war being fought over our country. A few days later, we would be watching a different sort of spectacle on the football pitch in Spain. The push and pull forces on a small nation trying to maintain a sense of normalcy amidst the madness of war.
A year earlier, my hometown was besieged by the Syrian army for three months. We spent the entire period sheltering from the shelling and the sniper bullets in the recesses of our homes. The sniper had conveniently positioned himself at the base of the Virgin Mary statues that stood atop a hill overlooking the entire town. Local myth had it that the Virgin Mary protected the town during previous battles. I was sceptical this time around.
Yet to my ten-year-old self, the most annoying thing about the siege was that we had to go to school in the sweltering heat for the entire summer of 1981 to catch up with the curriculum. We were looking forward to the summer of 1982 to catch a much-needed break. By then my football affiliation was invested in the West German team, for reasons I didn’t quite understand. Perhaps it was because of my namesake, the star of the German team Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
The Germans were defeated in the final by Italy 3 -1 which was heart-breaking, but the tournament had been a much-needed distraction from the war around. But it was more than just escapism. There was a yearning to belong to a normal world, which the World Cup satisfied if fleetingly. The players were little black and white smudges on the small TV that my father had finally relented and bought, but it had the advantage of running on car batteries during the regular power outages.
By the end of the summer, Israel’s plans in Lebanon had faltered and then its Lebanese allies committed the Sabra and Shatila massacre. We didn’t know it then, but we were halfway through a war that would stretch deep into the years to come.
By 1986 both my passion for football and the family television set had improved significantly in quality. The formidable German Grundig that we now owned would finally allow me to watch the World Cup in colour, and my passion for Liverpool, the greatest club in the world then, had started translating into budding support for England. Thus began a lifelong pattern, I would support England until the inevitable heartbreak, and then switch my affiliation to the more reliable Germans.
My hometown had witnessed the last battle in 1983 after which the Syrian army entered the town and would remain there for two decades. But in 1986 Elie Hobeika the notorious warlord who had been responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre had shifted his allegiance to Syria, and he relocated to our town with thousands of his militiamen after being expelled from the Christian heartland. They were the meanest brutes that the civil war had created, and becoming mercenaries only made them worse. For years they terrorised the town, making us live in a perpetual state of fear whenever we walked by one of them.
That spring while playing basketball I had ran afoul of his men. I made an unwise comment that the girlfriend of one of Hobeika’s men heard and she went away and came back with four of the nastiest looking thugs I had ever seen. Luckily my friends had seen them coming and warned me. I managed to evade them, they were looking for someone wearing glasses so I removed my glasses and walked past them casually. They made it known that if I were seen at the club again I would be dealt with mercilessly.
And so for the rest of that summer I was confined home. The World Cup was a huge relief, but my memories of 1986 are tightly-linked in my mind with my dread of Hobeika’s men. Maradona single-handedly eliminated England, if you excuse the pun. Argentina went on to defeat Germany in the final, 3-2, my idol Rummenigge scored one of Germany’s two goals but it wasn’t enough.
Yet the greatest game in that tournament was the quarter-final between Brazil and France, one of the best football games I have ever seen. The game was drawn at 1-1 after extra time. But just before the penalty shootout was about to start, the power went out. I had to wait till the next day to find out that France had won, but that was one of the most frustrating football moments I have experienced. I missed our old black and white TV then.
Four weeks into my first term at university in 1990, the war broke out between rival Christian factions and I had to sit the rest of the year out. For the first few days, we waited hoping that the fighting would stop in the coastal city where I was studying but the shelling only intensified. During a short lull, we decided to make a dash for it, and after several hours managed to leave the Lebanese Forces controlled area and head back to my hometown, where I spent the next few months trying to cope with the boredom.
By the time the World Cup started in June, the Christian war had entered a stalemate. In October of the previous year, the remaining members of the 1972 parliament had met in Saudi Arabia and agreed a deal to end the civil war, with the backing of regional and international powers. Only the army head General Michel Aoun held out against the deal, but he had been weakened by months of fighting against the Lebanese Forces militia.
In October 1990, the Syrian army with permission from the United States would attack and take over the Aoun controlled areas, effectively ending the fifteen year long civil war. We had no inkling that the war was about to end when the World Cup kicked off, for my generation in particular it felt that it would go on forever. It was the only reality that we had ever known. And yet the futility of the war had become more apparent than ever following months of internecine fighting.
The 1990 World Cup was the worst I had ever watched, matching in a way the phase that the Lebanese war had entered. Five of the six games in England’s group ended in a 0-0 or 1-1 draws, mirroring the sense of the stalemate around us. England would go on to reach the semi-final, only to lose against West Germany in a penalty shoot-out. The Germans eventually won the tournament in one of the dullest World Cup finals ever played. Even the World Cup seemed to be no longer capable of providing entertainment and distracting us from the war.
The end of the fighting that autumn finally uncoupled the correlation between the World Cup and war in my mind. Come 1994, I finally managed to watch a World Cup during peacetime. No invasions, sieges, or murderous goons to contend with. And yet I always look at those wartime World Cups with a sense of nostalgia. They awakened me to the magic of football, its power to enchant and entertain and carve out a cocoon of normalcy amidst a mad war.