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Mad Dash to UAE Match in Beirut

September 6th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Abu Dhabi, soccer, UAE, World Cup

Well, it hasn’t been dull.

I am trying to dash this off before the UAE match against Lebanon, in Beirut, gets started.

I am in the bowels of a battered stadium with lots and lots of history, much of it not good (war and destruction and refugees), and just getting here was an expedition.

Backing up, and going as quickly as I can …

Walked out of the hotel, headed for the game, and the usual random guy with a “taxi” was waiting. He spoke no English. I speak no Arabic. I used the words that usually bring on recognition. “Football. … Lebanon. … Big stadium …” Getting nowhere. At some point the man said “golf?” (I guess he thought I was dressed for golf; and here I thought it would be nice to wear khaki slacks to the game.)

Luckily, I had brought a map with me, and I pointed out the stadium on the map. Even then my guy needed help from a compatriot to figure out, “Oh, big stadium.” Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, actually.

I said, “How much.” He said 20,000 (Lebanese lira), which is a ridiculous price, but I just wanted to get moving and I didn’t know exactly with whom I was going to go for a better rate. I said, “Let’s go.”

He then took me on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of Beirut, cutting through back streets lined with cars and overhanging laundry out to dry. He wove around and between the ubiquitous scooters. When he made a move he was particularly proud of, he would turn and kiss his fingertips as if to say, “I am the master.” He explained his back-road meanderings as a faster way to the match. “Big traffic” he said, wiping off his shaved head.

It occurred to me to put on a seatbelt, but wouldn’t being in a major wreck in Beirut on the way to a World Cup qualifying match make a great story? Maybe not.

He even stopped for gas. “You, OK?” Sure, I said. What were the options? Running out of gas en route?

A woman came up and asked if she could get in the taxi, since these gypsy cabs often carry multiple people, and my guy, the master, shook his head no, looked at me reproachfully, then said, “Very nice,” in reference to the woman, who walked on.

Driving is a combat sport here, or at least it was at rush hour, and my guy seemed to have bought into the Nixonian theory that “if they think you’re crazy, you’ll get your way,” because he was the craziest driver among that mass of vehicles.

So, he pointed at the stadium, then drove right past it. He had to work his way back via a gridlocked roundabout, and that killed about 20 minutes, and then he gunned it more than usual, perhaps out of frustration.

He spotted an entry way on the right, and up we went, and I reached my first “checkpoint” — a solider with a submachine gun who said the cabbie couldn’t drive me in there. I said, fine, I could see the stadium in front of me — though I did ask some kids walking past, “UAE Lebanon football, yes?” and they said yes … and I handed over the 20,000 note (about $13.50), and bid him adieu.

The soldier let me through, because I was walking … and I looked at a map of the stadium and saw that I was heading for the “press tribune” … but when I got to the gate another batch of guys who spoke only Arabic wanted to know where my credential was. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the UAE FA or the Lebanon FA that I didn’t have one (really long story, and boring), but I was stuck. I started pulling out old credentials and business cards — including that of the Lebanon FA’s media officer. The guy saw the media guy’s name … and waved me through.

I got upstairs to the VIP section, which had red carpet but no seats, and another guy stopped me. He gestured at his chest, as if to say, “Where is your credential?” More cards and names — and I even tried twice to call the Lebanon media guy.

Eventually (and this happened repeatedly), the guy just waved me through. I got into what I took to be the media area but saw no media … and another guy stopped me. He spoke English and said, “You have to get the credential outside, not inside.” Which of course makes sense, but this was not some well-oiled operation.

A bit later, I spotted the UAE press officer on the pitch, and shouted at him to get his attention, and asked, “Where is my credential!?!” And he shrugged and with his right hand pointing at his ear, made some circles — perhaps the universal sign for, “this is nuts.”

One of the Lebanese guys did, however, find the local media guy, and about 10 minutes later he showed up and waved me down to the field. He had a kid at a big steel gate let me in, and brought me under the stadium and into a tiny room marked “media” … where a couple of guys sat behind laptops and two women appeared to be handling forms and the copy machine … and the media guy pointed out a chair to me.

I said, “internet? Wifi?”Critical for all operations, of course. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Password?” “None. Just get on. It works.”

So, crazy and expensive taxi ride, numerous near accidents, a refueling job, a checkpoint manned by a guy with a machine gun (oh, and I saw at least 50 soldiers coming to the game in huge trucks, too, as I walked in) … talking my way past at least three guys …

And now I have an “official” bib because I don’t have a credential, and that should enable me to get around the stadium. In theory.

Hey, Lebanon doesn’t play many World Cup qualifiers. This isn’t something they do every day.

If I can get to a seat … get back down here after the match … if the press conference goes off as planned … if the wifi is still up and stays up so I can file two stories … if I can find a cab back downtown in three hours … it will be a complete success!

Time to go. Kickoff in 13 minutes.

Oh, and the UAE has to win. Has to. Or they’re cooked.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 David // Sep 6, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    You know, you don’t get stories like this covering high school football in Southern California.

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