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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Libya flies rebel colours in first post-Qaddafi African soccer match




Libyan nation team wears and flies rebel colours (Source: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA)

By James M. Dorsey

When Libya plays Mozambique on Saturday in Cairo in its first African Cup of Nations qualifier since last month’s fall of Tripoli, it will be wearing and flying for the first time the NATO-backed rebel Transition National Council’s pre-Colonel Moammar Qaddafi Libya’s red, black and green striped flag with a crescent moon.

The Cairo match will also be the first one at which they line up to the playing of the national anthem that Libya adopted prior to the 1969 military coup that brought Mr. Qaddafi to power.

The fall of Tripoli to the anti-Qaddafi rebels opened the road to Tunisia, making it possible for the rebels to travel to Cairo. The road was closed until the fall late last month as part of the rebel’s effort to strangle the city as long as Mr. Qaddafi controlled it. Mr. Qaddafi has gone into hiding since the rebels entered the city.

Libya’s national team through much of the six-month long war that led to the effective ousting of Mr. Qaddafi played in green, the colour the former leader adopted for the Libyan flag after he came to power.

A majority of the national team stayed on the side lines during the conflict with the exception of four members, including goalkeeper, Juma Gat, who joined the rebels in June.

Nonetheless, Libyans on Tweeter and Facebook expressed a sense that for the first time the national team represented them rather than the autocratic leader who ruled their country with an iron first for 42 years.

Few fans will be able to attend the game, not only because of the difficulty in getting out of Libya, but also because it is being played for security reasons in a closed stadium in Cairo.

The Libyan national team’s appearance in Cairo in new colours symbolizes the end to the brutal manipulation of the Libyan game by Mr. Qaddafi’s third son, Al Saadi Al Qaddafi, a failed professional player who headed the Libyan soccer association and owned Tripoli’s main club, Al Ahly.

Saadi had the headquarters of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi’s club raised to the ground and some 80 of its supporters arrested after they protested against his abuse. Three fans were sentenced to death, but later had their sentences commuted.

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 in Libya was as much a political match as it was a competition in which politics rather than performance often dictated the outcome.

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

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