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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Detention of Qaddafi scion spotlights the soccer pitch as a platform of resistance


Al Saadi Al Qaddai (Source: AP/Cultureofsoccer.com) 
By James M. Dorsey

NATO-backed Libyan rebels have captured Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s soccer playing son, Al Saadi Al Qaddafi, the third of the Libyan leader’s seven sons to have been apprehended since the rebels late Sunday launched their final offensive on the capital Tripoli.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council, told the Associated Press that the rebels had detained Al-Saadi on Sunday night along with his brother Saif al-Islam.

Al Saadi together with his brothers Mutassim and Khamis headed a key brigade of the Libyan military, but made his name as a brutal yet failed soccer player and executive.

His soccer career highlights the use of the soccer pitch by Middle Eastern and North African autocrats as a tool to improve their tarnished images and control popular discontent.

A pile of rubble in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi bears witness to how serious Al Saadi took the threat of the soccer pitch as a platform for dissent.

The rubble is what is left of the headquarters of the Al-Ahly Benghazi soccer club. It tells a story that is extraordinary even by the standards of the bending of the beautiful game to their will by autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa. The story of Al Ahly’s battle with the Qaddafis also goes a long way to explain why Benghazi has emerged as the capital of the revolt that is about to definitively defeat the Qaddafi regime.

What makes Al-Ahly’s story different from the battle on soccer pitches between autocrats and militant fans elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa was the desperate ambition of Al Saadi, who headed the Libyan football association, to be recognized as a top soccer player and the brutality with which he responded to expressions of dissent. Al Saadi owned and managed Tripoli’s main soccer club, which is also called Al Ahly. He also captained and played on its team. A 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks described Al Saadi as “notoriously ill-behaved.”

The rubble in Benghazi is what is left of his effort to bury the city’s historic club lock, stock and barrel. The club’s red and white colours were banned from public display. Scores of its supporters were imprisoned; some were sentenced to death for attempting to subvert the Qaddafis’ rule.

It was a heavy price to pay for challenging the regime in a country in which sports broadcasters were forbidden to identify players by name to ensure that they did not become more popular or have greater media exposure than Al Saadi himself.  

The story of Al Ahly stands out as a perverted twist of the abuse of soccer by other Middle Eastern leaders like Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who publicly identified with their national soccer teams in a bid to boost their lingering popularity.

In a country in which the mosque and the soccer pitch were the only release valves for pent-up anger and frustration prior to the seven-month old revolt against the Qaddafis, Al Saadi’s association with Al Ahly 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 competition in which politics rather than performance often dictated the outcome.

A little more than a decade ago, Al Ahly Benghazi fans had enough of Al Saadi’s subversion of the game. They booed him and his team during a national cup final in front of visiting African dignitaries and taunted him by dressing up a donkey in the colours of Al Ahly Tripoli.

Al Saadi went ballistic.

“I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl's nest!” Khalifa Binsraiti, Al Ahly Benghazi’s then chairman, who was imprisoned in the subsequent crackdown, quotes an irate Al Saadi as telling him immediately after the match, according to The Los Angeles Times.

A penalty in another Al Ahli Benghazi match against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Al Saadi’s mother and the place where this year’s first anti-government demonstrations against corruption in public housing were staged, again so outraged Benghazi fans that they invaded the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned.

Things came to a head a decade ago when Al Saadi engineered Al Ahly Benghazi’s relegation to the second division by having a referee in a match against Libyan premier league team Al Akhdar ensure the team’s humiliation by calling a questionable penalty.

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

Al Ahly fans didn’t leave it at that. They headed to downtown Benghazi shouting slogans against Al Saadi. They burnt a likeness of his father and set fire to the local branch of his national soccer association.

It did not take long for Libya’s secret police to respond. Al Ahly’s 37-hectare clubhouse and facilities were raised to the ground while plainclothesmen visited the homes of protesting soccer fans. Some 80 people were arrested; 30 were put on trial on charges of vandalism, destruction of public property and having contacts with Libyan dissidents abroad, a capital offense in Mr. Qaddafi’s Libya.

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

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

The brutal and demonstrative destruction of Al Ahly kick started Al Saadi’s inglorious attempts at making it in Italian soccer.

He initially signed up with the Maltese team Birkirkara, but never showed up.

Three years later, he joined Italy’s Perugia but was suspended after only one game for failing a drug test. The incident earned him the reputation of being Italian Series A’s worst ever player.

His dismal record did not stop him from enlisting in 2005 with Italy's Udinese team, where he was relegated to the role of bench warmer except for a 10-minute appearance in an unimportant late-season match.

Riccardo Garrone, the president of Sampdoria and head of the oil company Erg, subsequently invited Saadi Qaddafi to train with his team in the hope that it would open the door to Libyan oil contracts.

Libyans joke that Al Saadi is the only soccer player who paid to play rather than was paid to play.

The story of Al Saadi and Al Ahly Benghazi is a study in the use of soccer by authoritarian Arab regimes to distract attention from economic and political problems and of Arab autocrats’ divide and rule approach to governance.

It is also the untold story of soccer in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf as a platform of resistance against repression, nepotism and corruption with soccer fans often moving into the front lines once mass anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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