BEIRUT - Ali al-Saadi gave Lebanon a 1-0 lead against South Korea and the sectarian chants echoing across Cite Sportive stadium suddenly gave way to a more hopeful cheer.
The roars of "Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah" - "For God's Sake, Lebanon Come On" - filled the 60,000-seat stadium and grew louder as the team closed in on a historic 2-1 win over their favored Asian opponents.
After Lebanon completed the victory that put it on the verge of reaching the next qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup, tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets waving the country's red and white flags with a green cedar in the middle.
Traffic came to a halt and it seemed for a moment as if the troubles that have plagued this country for decades had disappeared.
Lebanon only requires a point from its final group match against a winless UAE squad to advance. If it loses, Lebanon still would go through unless Kuwait manages to upset South Korea.
"Sports can do what religion and politics can't - gather the Lebanese people around a common thing," said Lebanese supporter Serge Mghames, who was in the crowd for the Nov. 15 match. "The national team changed the point of view to many soccer fans, and it united them for one goal, to participate in World Cup 2014. This was a very good step to help people to leave their political and religious views behind and watch their team without reverting to riots or gang wars."
Poised along the Middle East's most turbulent fault lines, Lebanon long has been the site of grinding conflicts and violence. The country's population of 4 million is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Druze, and every community is sensitive to anything that could tip the balance of power in a country with a grim history of sectarian strife.
This year, those tensions were laid bare as a U.N.-backed tribunal indicted four members of the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and a prominent Sunni. Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing and has vowed never to turn over the suspects, but the conflict has divided the country.
Much of the trouble between the groups has spilled over into soccer. The Lebanese government banned fans from attending domestic league matches following Harriri's assassination in 2005, imposing the measure after local clubs aligned with different sectarian groups turned violent. The ban was rescinded in October, but it devastated soccer in the country, with the domestic league all but collapsing and the national team drained of potential talent. The national team fell in the FIFA world rankings from 125 to as low as 178 before its recent resurgence.
"Without the fans, soccer is dead," said the general secretary of the Lebanese football federation Rahif Alameh. "Soccer had just [become an extension] of politics. Everything in Lebanon is politicized, the air we breathe is politicized."
But then the national team started winning.
Lebanon has risen to 111th in the rankings, with the 2-1 win over South Korea stretching its undefeated run to four games dating to a victory over the United Arab Emirates in September.
"The [rankings] are very generous and it puts us under more pressure to maintain it and improve it," said the team's German coach Theo Bucker, who took over in August after a stint with Zamalek in Egypt. "We will be trying to climb up further."
Bucker deserves much of the credit for the team's surprising rise. He managed to talk the country's two best players, Roda Antar and Youssef Mohammad, out of international retirement and set about changing the mentality of Lebanese soccer. Lebanon captain Antar has been at the heart of the team's resurgence and he believes that Bucker's confidence and professionalism have been the difference for Lebanon.
The team's success has revived the country's interest in the sport and now fans are thinking the unthinkable. Not only could Lebanon reach the fourth round of qualifying for the first time, but maybe it could even reach the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
"If Lebanon qualifies for the World Cup, it will raise the status of soccer in Lebanon. It will improve our image," said Abbas Atwi, who scored the winning goal against South Korea.
"Everyone is working toward the Lebanese team qualifying. This is a very big opportunity for us and hopefully it will happen. It will be very important for our country."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now