“A Hezbollah team," Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on his UN speech last week, referring to Hezbollah's missile facilities, that were allegedly hidden at a football stadium in Beirut. This stadium is known as, Al-Ahed Stadium, and is home for the current Lebanese champions: Al-Ahed.
Netanyahu did not choose this nickname out of nowhere. The Western media is very fond of defining Al-Ahed as a "Hezbollah club," mainly because of the dominant yellow color on the team’s uniform, and the speeches made by Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the organisation, after winning the recent championships.
Truth is, to date, no explicit documents have been found showing direct transfer of funds from the organisation to the club, but over the years some Hezbollah officials - from the education and culture departments - held senior managerial positions in Al-Ahed. In addition, between the end of the decade and the beginning of the current year, Al-Ahed's sponsor was the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar television station.
In 2016 the former team player, Qassem Samaheh, was killed and was one of the club's most outstanding youth. At the age of 19 Samaheh decided to join the organisation as a fighter, and was killed in a battle in Aleppo, Syria.
The team's fan base is indeed Shiite, but they are not in masses. There were barely 2,000 spectators at last year 's championship game. At Al - Ahed there are creative ways to attract audience to games. In the 2015/16 season, the club placed a sign outside the stadium inviting the general public to enter the game and receive a free falafel dish.
Al-Ahed's connection to Hezbollah tells the story of Lebanese football in general. Al-Ahed was founded in 1964 in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Dahieh, where the team had played in the past. However, following the wars and the situation on the ground, the team was forced to move to a new stadium, the same one mentioned in the Netanyahu speech. The pitch is located near Rafiq Hariri Airport. By the way, the Lebanese FA has declined and denied Netnayahu’s claims, referring the stadium as a missile cluster.
Like Al-Ahed, every population group or sector in Beirut - and in Lebanon in general - has a football club. Out of the 12 teams in the top division, 6 come from the capital. This creates a high number of Derby games, which bring fans from rival sectors, to compete, on a weekly basis. In fact, every cycle in the Lebanese league has at least one massive rivalry.
It is not surprising, then, that Al-Ahed's major rivalries are Ansar - the grand club of the 1990s, and the one that is identified to this day with the Hariri family and represents the Lebanese patriotic-secular-nationalist stream; And Nejmeh - a huge club and the most popular team in Lebanon nowadays.
The fans of Nejmeh emphasise their “All-Lebanese" identity - they do not see themselves as Arabs but more as Lebanese, and the fans are diverse and composed of Sunnis, Druze, Shiites, Christians and even Armenian Catholics. Two years ago, Nejmeh refused to go to a championship game against Al-Ahed, which the association wanted to switch to a neutral court without an audience, claiming that "Hezbollah is again taking care of the title of Al-Ahed." As a result, Al-Ahed won a 3-0 win in the game, and won the championship by three points.
The tension between the various groups and sectors in in Lebanon, has led to the league's break. This has also led to many games without an audience and has had a fatal impact on the level of professional football in Lebanon. Despite all these, since 2015 the league has played without any hiatuses or interruptions for three years in a row.
Al-Ahed is now the leading club in Lebanon. It has six championships, three of them in the last four seasons. The group plays some of the most prominent Lebanese players - Rabia Ataya, Mohammed Haidar and the young talent Mohammed Kdouh. Bulgarian striker Martin Toshev joined the season and scored a hat-trick on his debut in the big win at 0-6 on the Druze club - Safa.