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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Libyan soccer players defect in symbolic blow to Qaddafi

A group of 17 leading Libyan football figures have defected to NATO-backed rebels. (File photo)

A group of 17 leading Libyan football figures have defected to NATO-backed rebels. (File photo)
A group of 17 leading Libyan football figures have defected to NATO-backed rebels fighting to overthrow Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

The defectors include national team goalkeeper, Juma Gtat, three other national team members, and the coach of Tripoli’s top club al-Ahli, Adel bin Issa. Al Ahli is owned by Mr. Qaddafi’s mercurial, soccer playing son, Al Saadi Al Qaddafi.

Mr. Gtat and Mr. Bin Issa announced the group’s defection during a late night meeting in the rebel-held Nafusa Mountains in western Libya.

“I am telling Colonel Qaddafi to leave us alone and allow us to create a free Libya. In fact I wish he would leave this life altogether,” Mr. Gtat said in a BBC interview in a hotel in the town of Jadu in the presence of other players.

The defections constitute a symbolic blow to Mr. Qadaffi. All the more so because it is only three months ago that Al Ahli Tripoli fans cheered Saadi as he toured Tripoli’s Green Square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters, who chanted “God, Libya and Muammar only.”

The defections also are in stark contrast to the attitudes of soccer players elsewhere in North Africa who have largely stood on the side lines of anti-government protests even though their supporters played a key role in the demonstrations that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

The players’ failure to back the protests in Egypt and Tunisia has led to tension with their fans who feel that they have always supported their teams but that the players had abandoned them in their time of need.

The defection of the players has added significance because soccer was under Mr. Qaddafi an arena of confrontation between supporters and opponents of the Libyan leader long before the eruption of this year’s revolt.

Resentment against the Qaddafi regime in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi was fuelled when the fortunes of the city’s soccer team, also named Al Ahli, tumbled on and off the field a decade ago when Saadi took a majority stake in and became captain of it its Tripoli namesake and arch rival.

In a country in which the mosque and the soccer pitch were the only release valves for pent-up anger and frustration prior to this month’s protests, Saadi’s association with Al Ahli Tripoli meant that the prestige of the regime was on the line whenever the team played. As a result, soccer was as much a political match as it was a sports competition in which politics rather than performance often dictated the outcome of matches.

When Benghazi’s Al Ahli took a 1:0 lead in a match in the summer of 2000 against its Tripoli namesake, Saadi engineered that the referee imposed two penalties against it and also granted Al Ahli Tripoli an offside. The Benghazi players walked off the pitch in protest but were forced by Saadi’s guards to return. Tripoli won the game 3:1.

A similar incident occurred when Benghazi’s Al Ahli played against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Saadi’s mother and the place where the first anti-Qaddafi demonstrations erupted this year in protest against corruption in public housing.

Things came to a head a decade ago when Saadi engineered Al Ahli Benghazi’s relegation to the second division. A referee in a match against Libyan premier league team Al Akhdar sought to ensure Al Ahli’s humiliation by calling a questionable penalty that would have sealed Al Ahli’s disgrace.

Al Ahli’s coach confronted the referee, allegedly shoving him. Militant fans stormed the pitch. The game was suspended and Al Ahli’s fate was sealed.

Al Ahli fans didn’t leave it at that. They headed to downtown Benghazi shouting slogans against Mr. Qaddafi junior, burnt a likeness of his father and set fire to the local branch of his national soccer federation.

“I was ready to die that day, I was so frustrated,” The Los Angeles Times quoted 48-year old businessman Ali Ali, who was among the enraged crowd, as saying. “We were all ready to die.”

It did not take long for Libyan plainclothes security men to respond. Al Ahli’s 37-hectare clubhouse and facilities were razed to the ground as plainclothesmen visited the homes of protesting soccer fans. The rubble is till today all that is left of the clubhouse.

Some 80 were arrested of whom 30 for trial to Tripoli on charges of vandalism, destruction of public property and having contacts with Libyan dissidents abroad, a capital offense in Libya.

Three people were sentenced to death, but their penalties were converted to life in prison by the Libyan rule. The three were released after serving five years in prison.

Public outrage over the retaliation against Benghazi forced Saadi to resign as head of the federation, only to be reinstated by his father in response to the federation’s alleged claim that it needed Qaddafi’s son as its leader.

The resistance of Benghazi’s Al Ahli to Saadi’s machinations was all the more remarkable in a country in which sports broadcasters were forbidden to identify players by name to ensure that they did not become more popular than Mr. Qaddafi junior.

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