Beirut (AFP) – Lebanon’s top football stadium once hosted some of the world’s best players, but today it has become a neglected, explosion-hit arena at times used as a cereal warehouse.
Stray dogs roam around its abandoned facilities, the walls are water-damaged and ceilings have caved in.
The Beirut stadium is just one of several nationwide to have fallen into disrepair as Lebanon faces an economic collapse of historic proportions.
Playing surfaces are in such bad shape that the national team has been forced to play its qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup abroad.
Lebanon is to play Syria in the Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday.
Built in 1957 and named after Lebanon’s second president, the Camille Chamoun Sports City enjoyed a brief period of glory before it was heavily bombed during the 1975-1990 civil war.
It was then rebuilt in time to host the 1997 Pan-Arab Games, the 2000 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup and the 2009 Jeux de la Francophonie.
In 2017, Brazil’s Ronaldinho featured among an array of stars in a showdown between “legends” Real Madrid and Barcelona.
But in August 2020, like swathes of the capital, the stadium was ravaged in a deadly explosion at Beirut port that has been largely blamed on government neglect.
– ‘Crying shame’ –
The country’s worst peace-time disaster killed more than 210 people, wounded thousands and devastated the wheat siloes on the dockside.
In the aftermath, donated bags of wheat and flour were stored at Sports City.
“We had to find an alternative ground for the national team,” Hashem Haidar, head of the Lebanese Football Federation, told AFP.
They decided on the stadium in the southern city of Sidon, but even that needs considerable repair.
Until it’s ready, “we’ve reached a deal with the federations of opposing teams to play the first-leg games” away from Lebanon, he said.
They aim to have Sidon stadium ready to face Iran on November 11, then the United Arab Emirates five days later.
Even before the 2020 monster blast, Lebanon’s football grounds had been going downhill for years.
The seaside stadium in Sidon, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital, was one of three Lebanese venues for the 2000 AFC Asian Cup finals.
But visiting in 2018, the then manager of South Korea’s football team, German coach Uli Stielike, was shocked.
“Call this a football pitch?!” he reportedly said.
Lebanon’s coach from 2015 to 2019, Miodrag Radulovic, was once overheard deploring the state of the Beirut Municipal Stadium, a short walk away from Sports City.
“It’s a crying shame to be playing on such pitches,” the Montenegrin was reported as saying.
– ‘Shortens a player’s career’ –
To avoid the expense of real grass, those in charge of Lebanon’s football stadiums have rolled out astroturf across the country.
National team captain Hassan Maatouk said artificial grass might cost less, but it was affecting players’ health and performance.
It “shortens a player’s career”, said the 34-year-old player with Ansar FC.
“This season alone, five players with different clubs have injured their cruciate ligaments,” he said, referring to a ligament in the knee joint.
“Artificial pitches are directly responsible.”
Riyadh al-Sheekha, head of Lebanon’s Public Organisation for Sports, Youth and Scouts, said stadiums had been neglected for years.
“The government’s priorities are in other sectors,” he told AFP. “The budget we get is tiny and not even enough to cover the bare minimum.”
Politicians across party lines have also blamed corruption and incompetence for the stadiums’ lack of upkeep.
Sheekha called for more private sector funding as well as state support.
But it was tough to find a “private partner to take on the responsibility, especially with the economic crash and coronavirus pandemic”.
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