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Political football, Benghazi style

Soccer club, fans found you don't mess with Gadhafi

Posted: 05/21/2011 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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BENGHAZI, Libya -- It is one of Libya's oldest and most venerable institutions, predating not only Moammar Gadhafi's rule but also independence in 1951, and boasts what is perhaps the country's most fervent fan base.

But in a police state where soccer served as a substitute for resistance, the lads from the Al Ahli sports club angered the wrong crowd: Gadhafi and his soccer-besotted son, Saadi.

The club paid a steep price: Its grounds were demolished, its signature Al Ahli Benghazi soccer team was dissolved, and its red-and-white colors were removed from public display. Dozens of supporters were sent to prison, with some sentenced to death for subversion.


The story of Gadhafi's bludgeoning of Al Ahli offers a look at the obsessive and often ruthless behavior of a regime long closed to international scrutiny, of a leader so megalomaniacal that he forbade sports broadcasters from using players' names, demanding that they be referred to only by their numbers, lest they become too popular.

Although Gadhafi crushed the club 12 years ago, the rebel triumph here in the east has afforded fans and others the freedom to speak openly about the still-raw episode for the first time.

"Our club has always been very emotional; we have very passionate fans," said Khalifa Binsraiti, a longtime club official who went to jail during the crackdown. "But it was sport. No one ever imagined it would come to this."

The saga centers on Saadi Gadhafi, a family bad boy often photographed in designer shades who is a noted soccer enthusiast.

"Saadi was never much of a player," said Zain Abidin Burkan, a prominent sports journalist here. "But in the end, it didn't matter. His name was Gadhafi."

In the late 1990s, the young Gadhafi adopted a leading Tripoli team, also called Al Ahli. He became a player, captain, de facto manager and owner. And at the same time, he also headed the national football federation, becoming Libya's soccer czar.

"It was a complete corruption of the sport," says Burkan, a thin, jittery figure still outraged by the audacious conflict of interest.

Inevitably, Saadi's close identification with the Tripoli club meant that its fortunes became entwined with the leadership's prestige.

Saadi's team evolved into a powerhouse. He was able to buy the best players and, when needed, to bribe and bully referees and linesmen into making calls favoring his team, Burkan and others say.

"The referees were always against us," says Nasser Mohammed, 38, an Ahli Benghazi fan who slings cappuccino at a popular café in a country where quality coffee is one bequest of the long-ago Italian occupation. "Anything to make us lose."

During one national cup final match in Benghazi, witnesses say, Saadi and his team were mercilessly booed in front of a crowd featuring several dignitaries from sub-Saharan Africa, a region where his father was seeking to extend his influence. Afterward, Saadi was apoplectic.

"I will destroy your club!" Binsraiti, then Al Ahli's soccer chief, says he was told by an irate Saadi after that match. "I will turn it into an owl's nest."

Saadi's drive for revenge, fans say, came to a head at a crucial match in July 1999.

Al Ahli needed a victory against another team, Al Akhdar, to avoid being demoted to the second division, a profound blow for a proud franchise. The first half ended in a 0-0 draw.

But in the second half, a questionable penalty was called against Al Ahli; its opponent was awarded a penalty kick that would probably break the deadlock. Fans erupted in collective indignation. The coach confronted the referee, allegedly shoving him. Spectators stormed the pitch. The game was suspended. A loss for Al Ahli.

The fuming Al Ahli faithful mounted a march downtown, shouting slogans denouncing Saadi. The angry mob set fire to the building of the national soccer federation. They also burned a likeness of Moammar Gadhafi, a grievous offense.

Plainclothes security men soon began arriving at the homes of rioters. About 80 people were arrested, witnesses say. Most were soon released, but about 30 were sent for trial in Tripoli.

Apart from vandalism and destroying public property, the charges included more ominous allegations: contacts with dissidents abroad, a capital offense.

Trials were held. Three of those declared guilty were handed death sentences. At the eleventh hour, however, it was announced that Gadhafi the merciful had intervened. He commuted the capital cases to life in prison. The three ultimately served five years in custody.

Benghazi's club was no more. People here believe that Gadhafi personally ordered the bulldozing of the Al Ahli facilities.


-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2011 J5

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