ANSAR - A football team made up entirely of the victims of landmines and cluster bombs defeated a combined diplomatic team from Beirut in a special event held to mark International Mine Awareness Day on Saturday. The event drew large crowds and media coverage as a side boasting three ambassadors went down 2-1 to team determined to prove that their
disabilities would not put them at a disadvantage on the football field.
Staff from the British, Norwegian and Australian embassies joined forces after being challenged to a game by the Landmine Survivors team on a visit to Tyre last November.
Speaking to the crowd before kick-off, Norwegian Ambassador Aud Lise Norheim said that the match was "a historic occasion."
As the game got under way in a carnival atmosphere, it quickly became apparent that the Survivors meant business. The team displayed a range of skills, including deft flicks and overhead kicks that wouldn't have looked out of place in a professional game, as they eased into the lead with a goal mid-way through the first half.
While it was clear that the Embassy team lacked the structure and in some cases the skill of their opponents, a period of hard work won them a free-kick on the stroke of half time, which was buried in the back of the net to bring the scores level.
Sensing a comeback, the three ambassadors, Aud Lise Norheim of Norway, Frances Guy of Britain and Lyndall Sachs of Australia took to the field once again to begin the second half. The opening period saw committed tackling from Norheim and tireless running from Guy but a defensive error saw Survivors goal-scorer Mohammed El-Zein double his tally with a venomous finish.
The Embassy side's fortunes continued to slide as their goalkeeper, who had been instrumental in keeping the score-line respectable, was sent off for handling the ball outside the box. The Survivors kept cool heads through a period of late pressure to secure a victory that will be long remembered by players and fans alike.
Speaking to The Daily Star from the substitute's bench during the first half, British Ambassador Frances Guy said that the Survivors were a great example for other people suffering disabilities.
"The great thing about this is that they are participating like everyone else. It shows the people who are disabled can participate in sport, or anything else," she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by the Survivor's two-goal hero Zein, who lost his right leg in a landmine explosion near Nabitiyeh in 1985.
"Football has been my hobby since I was a kid," he said, as he showed off the commemorative plaque he had received after the game. "When I lost my leg, I honestly didn't think I would be able to play again. But I believe in turning disability into ability. I have won three marathons in my class, and when I play football, I always take my chance to score."
Zein and his teammates train on a weekly basis and play regularly against able-bodied opponents. The team is partly funded by the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped (LWAH), an organization committed to empowering disabled people in Lebanon.
LWAH staffer Zeina Assi said that the football team's victory showed what can be achieved by disabled people with the right attitude. "They do not feel they are handicapped," she said. "They don't need people to say they are OK. They are saying themselves that they are able. They are their own advocates, refusing to let their injuries burden them for life."
She said that the fact that the players' disabilities had been caused by conflict made their participation even more important. "It's not like any other disability, because it's caused by a war, so they have an even more important message to give," she said. "It also raises awareness on the cluster bomb issue."
The game was one of several events held across Lebanon to mark International Mine Awareness Day. The UN peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon organized special sessions in schools aimed at raising awareness of the dangers posed by mines and cluster bombs left over from the wars that have ravaged the country.
In the last days of summer war of 2006, Israel fired millions of cluster bomblets into southern Lebanon. Many did not explode, leaving hundreds of thousands of de facto anti-personnel mines that have killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds of others since the end of the conflict.
Despite this, efforts to clear Lebanon of unexploded ordnance have hit by a funding crisis in recent months which has seen clearance experts double their estimates of how long it will take to clear the contaminated land.
UNIFIL's force commander Major General Claudio Graziano said on Saturday that raising awareness about the risks was an important of part of managing the threat. "Mine action is not just about clearing the ground of explosive items," he said. "It is important to raise awareness among people living in mine-affected areas so that they are able to protect themselves from the danger."