People of Nejmeh (2015)

‘The People of Nejmeh’ (2015) united in soccer

The football stories of underdeveloped countries often reflect their nation’s politics. Elections need to be carefully planned around major sports events. Even in developed nations, politicians use sports to bolster approval, because everyone loves a winner.

For example, don’t copy Brazil, who scheduled elections to follow the 2014 World Cup. Brazilians ousted its politicians after their team’s debacle. Learning from that, Putin instead planned his next re-election to be held in advance of the 2018 World Cup that Russia is hosting.

So the story of Nejmeh FC is quite unusual, especially in the Middle East. Because Nejmeh, which means “The Stars”, was founded on the principle that it be a club for all people and all religions. It was not meant to be a tool for any politician or religion. For decades, it was the only non-sectarian club in Beirut that welcomed Sunni, Shiite, and Christian players and fans.

50 years of conflict in Lebanon

Director Jonathan Cadiot and writer Youssef Yaacoub have assembled a riveting story of a club whose fans have clung to its founding principle despite almost 50 years of civil war, occupation, and massive refugee influx. Cadiot’s film is also a history lesson, showing these periods of strife and how they affect Nejmeh FC and its people.

For example, in 1982 the Israeli Air Force bombs and destroys the Sports City Stadium because it is being used as a Palestinian warehouse and training facility. In 1986-1987, players join the off-field fighting between two Shiite groups (Iran-backed Hezbollah and Syria-backed Amal), yet they continue to play together for Nejmeh FC on the pitch.

Sadly, after the Israel-Lebanon conflict in 2006, the team of all faiths instead becomes a club of one clan, the Sunni Future Movement. Fan groups are not allowed in the stadium until 2014. Still, ardent fans continue to hope that Nejmeh FC will return to its diverse roots. Says one fan,

“A man can change his family, his religion, his house, his wife, his children, whatever. But he can’t change his football team.”

For the completely opposite approach to diversity, watch the 2016 film Forever Pure about Beitar Jerusalem, whose supporter group enforces racism.

A little interaction with the director

Update Feb-2018: On the film’s Website, Youssef Yaacoub has a video that explains why the film was made. My French was lacking, but Yaacoub contacted me to explain:

“I was telling the reason behind making the film, as I child, i found a scrapbook that belonged to my father who was a nejmeh fan during the 1970’s and inside of this book he had articles and pictures about Nejmeh glory days and in one picture i found Pele in Nejmeh jersey. You can imagine how shocked I was as the only image i had about my country was a battlefield of many fighting parties, and I couldn’t believe that one day we had better days, and hosted big events and world stars, so the book served as a window for me to discover the history of my country.”

I had originally not paid that much attention to the Pelé part of the film. I hadn’t even included it in my review, because I had discounted the event as  one of Pelé’s promotional tours. But what I ignored was that the event caused two filmmakers to view a culture differently and to explore its depths. And for me, that is the real value of watching football films.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8


Updated Feb-20-2018 to incorporate Yaacoub’s input and to correctly identify Amal as a Shi’a group.

For another fine documentary about football and Lebanon/Beirut, check out Beirut Parc.