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For Lebanese soccer players, the flight toward home is one of worry

DAMASCUS, Syria—The members of Lebanon's national soccer team are Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim and Christian, from the north and the south, devout and secular. They bicker like brothers and posture like all professional athletes, but get them talking about air raids over their homeland, and their voices strike the same heartbroken chord.

The 23 players with "Lebanon" emblazoned across the backs of their red track suits took an evening flight from Cairo, Egypt, to Damascus on Tuesday, the first leg of a perilous journey home from a training program cut short by war.

"I'm so scared about what I'll see," whispered Lary Mehanna, 22, a Christian. "The night it started, we didn't move from the TV. Every player wanted to get home as soon as possible, but we had to find a safe way."

The flight takes two hours, and most players spent every second brooding over what they would find in their ancient cities. Their long legs fidgeted constantly; their fingers drummed knees. The suspense was palpable.

From Syria, they plan to drive into Lebanon via roads that have been under attack all week by Israeli warplanes.

"Lebanon is going to the fire," lamented Ahmed el Choum, 23, who comes from Baalbek, a hard-hit area in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Some members of the team have called their families in a panic, only to find them happily swimming in northern villages, safe from the bombardment of the south. Others hadn't heard from their relatives in four days, and their young faces have grown haggard and pained from the worry.

Egyptian passengers greeted them as heroes, giving high-fives and muttering "God bless the resistance" as they made their way through the narrow aisles of the plane.

Children wanted their photos taken with the team. The players smiled obligingly and posed.

Ramiz Dyoub, 22, a gray-eyed Shiite Muslim from Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, voiced anger at Arab governments that have chastised the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah for launching the cross-border raid that touched off the fighting with Israel.

"The Arab countries are saying nothing except, `It's not our problem,'" he said. "America, Israel and Britain already are against the Arabs, so what future do we see? Nothing. We'll stay like this: a deal, then war, a deal, then war, forever."

For many players, uncertainty hung like a dark cloud over their trip. Twelve days ago, Fadi Ghosson, 27, left his comfortable apartment in a seven-floor building in the heart of Beirut's southern suburb of Haret Hreik, where Israeli planes bombed Hezbollah's headquarters.

Every time the TV shows the aftermath of a strike, Ghosson leans in to see if he can recognize the rubble.

His pregnant wife, two months from her due date, has fled to Syria. They're having a boy, Ghosson said proudly, and on Tuesday he talked to her from Syria. "Maybe all I have left is all I'm wearing. But my wife and my boy are safe," he said, beaming. "Believe me, today is the first day all week that anyone has seen me smile."

When the plane touched down in Damascus, the players clapped and sang pro-Hezbollah songs. The team's head coach, Adnan Charki, fired them a warning glance, but no passengers were visibly offended.

Charki, 62, said he supports Hezbollah but doesn't believe in mixing soccer and politics. "There is no room for politics here," he said. "First, we are Lebanese, second we play soccer. That's it."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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