Benghazi soccer exemplifies the battle between Arab autocrats and their detractors

A pile of rubble in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi symbolizes Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s long-standing tense relations with the city. It also stands as a memorial to the role of soccer as a platform of dissent against autocratic rule in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

The rubble is what is left of the headquarters of the Al-Ahly Benghazi soccer club, a testimony to its story that is extraordinary even by the standards of autocratic Arab efforts to bend the beautiful game to their will. The story of Al Ahly’s battle with the Qaddafis goes a long way to explain why Benghazi has emerged as the capital of the revolt against their rule.

What makes Al-Ahly’s story different from the battle on Soccer pitches between autocrats and militant fans elsewhere in the Arab world are the football ambitions of one Mr. Qadaffi’s sons, Al Saadi al Qaddafi, who headed the Libyan soccer federation, and the brutality with which he exacted revenge for their expressions of dissent. 
A 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks described Mr. Qaddafi junior as “notoriously ill-behaved.”

The rubble is what is left of Mr. Qaddafi junior’s efforts to bury the historic club lock, stock and barrel. Its red and white colors were banned from public display. Scores of its supporters were imprisoned, some of whom were sentenced to death for attempting to subvert the Qaddafis’ rule.

It was a heavy price to pay for challenging 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 the club’s namesake in the capital Tripoli, which was owned and managed by the Libyan ruler’s son. Mr. Qaddafi also played and captained the Tripoli team.

The story of Al Ahly stands out as a perverted twist of efforts by Middle Eastern leaders like Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to identify 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 this month’s protests, Mr. Qaddafi junior’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 sports competition in which politics rather than performance often dictated the outcome.

Backed by Mr. Qaddafi junior, Al Ahly Tripoli blossomed with its financial muscle that allowed it to buy the best players and bribe bully referees and linesmen to rule in its favor.

A little more than a decade ago, Al Ahly fans had enough of Mr. Qaddafi junior’s subversion of the game. They booed him and his team during a national cup final in front of visiting African dignitaries and dressed up a donkey in the colors of Al Ahly Tripoli.

Mr. Qaddafi junior went ballistic.

“I will destroy your club! I will turn it into an owl's nest!” The Los Angeles times quotes Khalifa Binsraiti, Al Ahly Benghazi’s then chairman, who was imprisoned in the subsequent crackdown, as being told by an irate Mr. Qaddafi junior immediately after the match.

A penalty in an Al Ahli Benghazi match against a team from Al-Baydah, the home town of Mr. Qaddafi junior’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 Mr. Qaddafi junior engineered Al Ahly Benghazi’s relegation to the second division. A referee in a match against Libyan premier league team Al Akhdar sought to ensure Al Ahly’s humiliation by calling a questionable penalty that would have sealed Al Ahly’s disgrace.

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 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 quotes 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 Ahly’s 37-hectare clubhouse and facilities were raised to the ground as plainclothesmen visited the homes of protesting soccer fans. 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 Mr. Qaddafi junior 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 Mr. Qaddafi junior’s inglorious attempts at making it in Italian soccer.

The younger Qaddafi 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 Mr. Qaddafi junior is the only soccer player who paid to play rather than was paid to play.

Al Ahli Benghazi was resurrected in 2004, initially as a second-division squad, but later graduated to the country’s premier league.

The story of Al Ahly 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 whose fighters graduated to the front lines once mass anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.


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