By James M. Dorsey
"We will not forget you, Mohammed the fighter and the martyrs,” reads the T-shirt of a victorious Libyan player (Source: yfrog.com)
Libyans this weekend celebrated two post-revolution firsts for their national soccer team: victory in an African Cup of Nations qualifier in which the team represented the nation rather than the regime of ousted leader Colonel Moammar Qaddafi and playing with the colors of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan monarchy.
"The slogans of freedom have become reality and not just ink on paper," Mohammed Barakat, a Libyan sports commentator told The Wall Street Journal as players draped in the pre-1969 flag stood solemnly for the monarchy-era national anthem before kickoff of the match against Mozambique which they won 1:0 in a match in a stadium in the Egyptian capital Cairo played for security reasons behind closed doors.
"We will not forget you, Mohammed the fighter and the martyrs,” read the T-shirt donned by one of the team’s players after the Libyan victory.
Mr. Qaddafi abolished the monarchy after coming to power in a 1969 military coup and established Libya as a Jamahiriya, a rally of the masses, designed to camouflage the fact that he was subjecting the country to iron-fisted one-man rule.
The Libyan victory days after NATO-backed rebels captured the country’s capital, Tripoli, brought thousands to the city’s Martyr Square that was known a Green Square in the Qaddafi-era and onto the streets of the rebel capital of Benghazi.
In a reflection of the times, many of the Libyan team's players hail from Benghazi, whose soccer team and fans were targets of Mr. Qaddafi’s vindictive third son, Al Saadi Al Qaddafi, a failed player who headed the Libyan football association and owned Tripoli’s Al Ahly SC, the arch rival of Benghazi’s major club.
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 color the former leader adopted for the Libyan flag after he came to power. A majority of the 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.
Conspicuously absent from the Libyan line-up in Cairo was one of the country’s best players, Tariq Ibrahim al-Tayib, who in July referred to dead rebels as dogs and rats.
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.
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.
A letter from world soccer body FIFA to the Libyan football association found by The Financial Times in the headquarters of Qaddafi’s intelligence service accused the Libyan body of violating FIFA rules by interfering politically in the sport.
"Before anything to do with football involved al-Saadi, Mohammed and Moammar — they controlled everything. Now we are free from the Qaddafis,"," said Salah al-Sweihly, a rebel from Misrata, referring to Mr. Qaddafi, Saadi and another of the ousted leader’s sons, Mohammed.
"It was special in every way," he said. "It is a victory for the martyrs, not just a soccer game."
"It was special in every way. It is a victory for the martyrs, not just a soccer game," said soccer fan Mourad Mounir referring to those who died in the six-month civil war that drove Mr. Qaddafi out of power and into hiding.
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.