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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Libyan National Soccer Team Supports Gadaffi

Politics were not a regular topic of conversation in the Libyan national soccer team, but coach Pablo Prieto believes that a majority of his players support embattled Libyan leader Col. Moamar Gadaffi.

Not that Prieto, a Spaniard who in the past coached Spanish teams in Ferrol and Seville, has major problems with Gadaffi, who has been internationally condemned for his brutal efforts to crush mass anti-government protests demanding an end to the eccentric Libyan leader’s 41-year authoritarian rule.

"I'd have no problem with” returning to Libya under Gadaffi. “They treated me well. The working conditions were very good and so I wouldn't have a problem," Priesto told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.

“Our entourage was loyal to the leader, I suppose. The players never really came out on what was happening. (The coaching staff) didn't talk politics. The players neither, I guess,” the Post quoted him as saying.

Priesto’s assessment of his squad’s political inclinations strokes with attitudes of some players and managers in Egypt.

They reflect a complex relationship with the dictator evident across the Arab world that cannot be reduced to vested economic interest or privilege. Players often support protesters demands for an end to corruption, greater transparency and more freedom, but object to the perceived indignity to which they see their leader as being subjected to.

Analysts compare the attitude to that of a child who defends his father irrespective of whether his father is right or wrong. The analysts say leaders like Gadaffi and Hosni Mubarak, who last month was forced to resign after 30 years in office by mass protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, have successfully positioned as father figures, a notion that is replicated through multiple layers of society.

They point to embattled Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata’s unflinching support for Mubarak, which has prompted calls for his resignation by fans who played a key role in the anti-Mubarak protests.

“Shehata knew that he had everything to lose, particularly the support of the fans,” many of whom played active and important roles in the anti-Mubarak protests, one analyst said. “Yet he stuck to his insistence that the president be treated with dignity.” Similarly, some Egyptian players could not bring themselves to denounce their ‘father’ publicly.

Gadaffi and his offspring like Mubarak and his sons reinforced the notion of the father figure by riding on the coattails of their country’s soccer successes such as Libya’s successful bids to host various African championships and its emergence as a futsal, indoors soccer, champion.

“Religion is no longer the opium of the people, its football,” said an Egyptian activist.

Priesto’s portrayal of Libyan soccer reflects the Gadaffis’ grip on the game as well as the Libyan leader’s dislike of institutionalization. Priesto was hired as national coach in 2009 by the Libyan leader’s nephew, Saadi Abdesalam Saadi, the head of Libya's futsal program.

"His treatment was exquisite. He was very professional, someone dedicated 24 hours a day to indoor football so we had every necessary means available to work with," Prieto said. "He was very demanding and a very noble person."

The coach only got to once shake the hand of the controversial face of Libyan soccer, Saadi al Gadaffi, a failed professional player, who chairs the Libyan Olympic Committee and plays a key role in his father’s violent attacks on his distracters.

Priesto said Libya’s lack of a national league had complicated his efforts to identify talent, forcing him to primarily rely on exhibition tournaments.

Priesto said he was ordered to cancel training on February 17 and stay home. That order remains in place as Libya is wracked by the protests and the international community struggles to find ways to force Gadaffi to stop his attacks.

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