The Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hizbollah is the world’s strongest armed non-state military and political group. As all main Islamic movements Hezbollah is also a cultural movement, aiming to transform norms and values of the umma. One field where this has been observed is the Ashura ritual where the death of Hussein, prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in Kerbala 680 AD, is commemorated. For Hizbollah Ashura has become a way to express their political ideology, military order and discipline as part of their building of an Islamic community of resistance.
While several scholars have explored how Hizbollah connects ritual and politics during Ashura, peer reviewed studies on how Hezbollah cope with football are harder to find. Yet, regarding how ritual and politics are intersected, there are many similarities. Hezbollah has its own Sports Unit that has established around 150 football and sports schools in Lebanon. The aim is to “create a new sports culture” and to qualify young men “to further develop their military capabilities,” according to the leader of the unit.
Furthermore, Hizbollah has since 1992 had its own football club, Al-Ahed. The club is today the strongest in Lebanon. In 2019 they won the Asian cup for club-teams, the largest success in the history of Lebanese football. When the club returned to Lebanon, they were celebrated by supporters waving the flags of Hizbollah and pictures of their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as well as the picture of one of the Al-Ahed’s most legendary player, Qassam Shamkha. Shamkha had quit playing for Al-Ahed to fight for Hizbollah in Syria where he was killed in 2016. Since that year all players of Al-Ahed have gone to visit the grave of Shamkha at the start of a new season. Martyrdom, struggle, and football are thus blended into one.
In the paper it will be argued that equally to the Ashura ritual, Hizbollah situates its symbolic universe on the football pitch. Hizbollah is in this regard a vanguard within political Islam, having adopted the game as part of their culture of resistance decades before the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Methodologically the paper is mainly based on fieldwork; interviews and participatory observation including football matches in Lebanon from August 2019 to May 2020.