Religious and political strife are probably what come to most people’s minds when they think about Lebanon.
But this small, often troubled Middle Eastern nation, bordered by Syria and Israel, is also home to one of sport’s great but unheralded clashes.
Basketball is Lebanon’s most popular sport, and its two most successful teams are Club Sagesse and Al Riyadi. Welcome to the fever-pitch rivalry of the Lebanese El Clasico.
The two Beirut-based clubs have a history of fierce competition that, in its context, is just as intense as the antipathy between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
As you might expect in a nation characterised for many decades by conflict between Christians and Muslim factions, it’s a clash driven by religious and political differences.
Established in 1992, Club Sagesse is one of the most successful teams in the region – and beyond.
Its many triumphs quickly saw it overshadow the football team that sprang from the same Beirut sporting club as it dominated the the newly-formed Lebanese League, as well as the Arab and FIBA Asia Championships.
The club is owned and controlled the College de la Sagesse of the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut.
It is backed by the Lebanese Forces political party, one the country’s most influencial Christian organisations, led by Samir Geagea.
Club Sagesse’s roll call of notable triumphs includes:
- Eight Lebanese Championships
- Three FIBA Asia Champions Cups
- Three West Asian Championships
- Two Arab Club Basketball Championships
The Al Riyadi club are based in the Manara district of Beirut where men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are held every year.
The club was founded back in 1934 but was only given the permission to be involved in various sports in the post-war, when Lebanon formally broke away from French colonial rule.
It is supported financially by Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Al Hariri, who is a Sunni Muslim and the leader of the Future Movement political party.
Al Riyadi has won even more trophies than Club Sagesse, including:
- 15 Lebanese Championships
- Two FIBA Asia Champions Cups
- Two West Asian Championships
- Two Arab Club Basketball Championships
While both clubs rightly celebrate their many triumphs on the basketball court, these have been overshadowed down the years by religion and political tensions between fans.
There have been many instances where games between the two have been halted or even postponed due to fighting between fans and players.
One die-hard Sagesse fan told me: “Politics plays a big part between these two teams as Al Riyadi is supported by Saad Al Hariri. They have pictures of him placed inside their stadium, and most of their players follow his political party.
“Religion plays a role too, as most Club Sagesse fans and players are Christian, whereas Al Riyadi, their fans and players are Muslim, plus it’s very rare for that player who played for Al Riyadi will ever move and play for Sagesse [or vice versa].”
One Al Riaydi fan told me: “Everything [in Lebanon] involves religion and politics.
“When basketball became popular, Sagesse and Al Riyadi were the best two teams so that caused a rivalry between them, and fans started to call it the Lebanese El Classico, as they always played each other in the finals.”
When it comes to the head-to-head record between Al Riyadi and Club Sagesse, the former lead by nine wins since the 2007-08 season.
Club Sagesse over the years has had some problems with players not being paid. For example, Elie Rustom, a valuable player for Sagesse, left them for Champville Mariste Club due to complications over his contract.
When these two teams meet it’s more like one religion versus another religion, or one political party versus another political party.
The quality of the basketball on display, with both sides determined not to be defeated by their bitter rivals, is often overlooked.
Lebanon, once the playground of the Eastern Mediterranean for the world’s rich elite, is currently enjoying a period of relative political and economic stability.
But peace is unlikely to break out between Al Riyadi and Club Sagesse anytime soon…