Monday, May 23, 2011

Soccer Revolution II

Libyan pro-democracy demonstrators and fighters have a lot to plan for, not least of which is their scheduled hosting in 2013 of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament.

Apparently little heard in the din of protest demonstrations and weapons fire in the continuing battle for Libya was the declaration Tuesday by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) stating that the sports body was still thinking about Libya as a matter of priority.

Caf’s secretary-general Hicham El Amrani told BBC News yesterday that the group is also considering other options in the light of the continuing battle for Libya between pro-democracy opposition forces and troops loyal to the government of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The federation official added that the group was also taking into consideration not only the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations tournament but also the CHAN, the African Nations Championship and the Futsal Championship next year – all scheduled in Libya.

He said Plan Bs and Plan Cs were on the table, but as of today, there are no decisions to switch the tournaments to venues other than Libya.

An internal timetable has reportedly been set by the sports federation for a decision on a transfer of venue, but its head said it would not be made public prior to a meeting on the subject scheduled for September.

The CAF already had to move a competition set for earlier this year in Libya, the African U20, which had to be switched to South Africa where it was successfully staged.

On the warfront, latest reports said opposition forces were closing in on Tripoli from the east and west, claiming the liberation from government forces of two towns along the Mediterranean coast.

There has been no word however on whether the Qaddafi regime, apparently cornered in Tripoli, was about to capitulate.


Recognizable by their bright red FC al-Ahli soccer jerseys, you can see them on virtually every street corner in Benghazi. Since the Libyan uprising of Feb. 17, local soccer supporters have been among those most active in trying to build of a new Libyan nation. Some have put their sweat into repairing pavements or roads. Others have gone to the front to fight against Colonel Gaddafi's troops.

But on a recent evening, a few supporters got together in Benghazi Central Square and recalled when they were routinely beaten up a decade ago because they were FC al-Ahli fans. At that time, about 30 supporters went through a living hell because they dared to rebel against Saadi Gaddafi – the third son of the Libyan leader – who back then was both owner and captain of the rival club based in Tripoli called Al Ahly Tripoli.

Soccer was then one of the few fields in which people would show their collective local pride, and more implicitly their rejection of the current regime. Thus, the Libyan dictator thought that it was anything but a harmless hobby.

In the summer of 2000, Saadi Gaddafi decided to reign in the unruly rival team after a series of on-field disputes. During a match between the two clubs, Benghazi players threatened to leave the field after two “imaginary” penalties and an offside goal were awarded to the rival team leader. Later, FC al-Ahli supporters refused to support the Libyan national team, and ransacked the premises of the Libyan Soccer Federation, which was then chaired by Saadi Gaddafi himself.

In the following days, Libya's Internal Security Forces rounded up several dozen supporters and sent them to Tripoli. “Before being transferred to the Ain Zara prison, usually reserved for political prisoners, they shaved our heads,” recalls Abdul Salam el-Mozoughi, a strapping fan, now 42. “We were tortured for five weeks. Our torturers wanted us to confess to the worst crimes imaginable. Gaddafi's soldiers treated us like terrorists. They wanted us to say that we were in touch with political opponents in exile.”

In the meantime, Benghazi's FC al-Ahli was temporarily disbanded, as 34 defendants were accused of attempting to create a political party, insulting the Libyan guide's family and criminal conspiracy. Three of the defendants were sentenced to death. Those sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment.

“The truth is that Saadi Gaddafi had a grudge against us, because our team was strong, and because we refused to submit to his whims,” says Murad Rhoma, who was behind bars for three years. “On the field, the other teams' players were so afraid of his fits of anger that they did not dare to try to get the ball from him,” adds Abdul Salam el-Mozoughi, who was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

The supporters, who were pardoned at the end of 2005, have got their team back now. But Saadi Gaddafi does not seem to have forgiven Benghazi's inhabitants. In the early days of Libya's revolt, he seemed to have personally ordered to shoot young protesters in Benghazi.

Many FC al-Ahli supporters have taken active roles in the Libyan revolution, only too pleased to be able to take their revenge. At the end of March, six of them were killed by accident by a NATO strike. Others were shot dead by the pro-Gaddafi troops. “Our country is worth those sacrifices,” says Murad Rhomas. The man is overjoyed to be able to speak openly of his pride. At present, like many other locals, he wants to devote himself totally to fight against Gaddafi's troops.

But as soon as the peace is won, they boast to their French visitors, the old Hugo Chavez Stadium will be re-baptized Nicolas Sarkozy Stadium. “Then it will be time to enjoy playing soccer again.”

The club that defied Gaddafi
The Guardian
Benghazi, Libya, May 27, 2011

The story of the Al-Ahly Benghazi football club offers a window into the mindset of the Gaddafi family and explains some of the resentment that led to the revolution there. For more than a decade Muammar Gaddafi and his footballing son, Saadi, conspired to destroy Libya’s oldest club. In 2000, the club faced relegation and the primary reason, the squad insisted, was a conspiracy by Saadi who captained Ah Ahly Tripoli and headed the Libyan Football Federation.

Having already used his wallet to lure several Benghazi players to Tripoli, Saadi set about rigging games by bribing or coercing match officials. Indeed, throughout the season, Al-Ahly appeared to be on the wrong side of refereeing decisions. On 20 July 2000, the team needed a draw from their last game to survive and their opponents were awarded a dubious penalty and Benghazi fans invaded the pitch, forcing the match to be abandoned. A donkey made an appearance, clad in a shirt with Saadi’s number.

Gaddafi waited until 1 September to take revenge. During Friday prayers, bulldozers destroyed Al-Ahly’s training ground and team offices. The club was hit with relegation and an indefinite ban.

32 fans and staff were sent to prison in Tripoli, most were given sentences of between three and 10 years. Three men received the death penalty.

Today, the site contains only a building and a training field. At the old ground, piles of rubble are all that remain. “We still don’t know why Gaddafi did this to Al-Ahly,” said Moataz Ben Amer, the current club captain. “Football takes the attention of the youth away from bigger issues like politics. But Gaddafi does not understand that.”

Curiosly, Gaddafi sent Saadi to Benghazi in February to end the uprising. Realising he had no chance, Saadi exited, but not before giving orders to shoot unarmed protesters, according to local people and a BBC Panorama report.

DIY demolition on Gaddafi's pet projects
By Andrew Hosken
BBC News, Benghazi

The antipathy between Col Muammar Gaddafi and the so-called "rebel stronghold of Benghazi" runs deep, with the Libyan leader leaving a trail of unfinished construction projects there.

The other day I was taken to see a pile of rubble in Benghazi.

As you can imagine, there are quite a few piles of rubble in Benghazi at the moment, with little to distinguish them.

But this pile stood next to fragments of a sports stadium and, lurking morosely on the periphery of some wasteland, were half a dozen or so floodlights, their long-extinguished lamps dipped more in pity than illumination.

This was once the club HQ of the Al-Ahly Benghazi football club, and the remarkable story of how its hallowed turf was turned into scorched earth revealed much about Libya under Col Gaddafi and his family, and why the revolution originated in this extraordinary city.

In recent months a number of important places have been reduced to ruins in what is habitually referred to as the "rebel stronghold of Benghazi".

Both the ministry of internal security and the hated Katiba army barracks have felt the force of revolutionary fervour.

At the Katiba, the rebels requisitioned bulldozers from a local plant hire company to conduct arbitrary demolitions, as well as making a number of other alterations by means of fire.

Col Gaddafi always stayed in the Katiba during his few visits to Benghazi, whose people he always distrusted.

I had a look around, and I doubted very much whether he would like what they have done with the place.

As for the football club, retribution came its way in the shape of Col Gaddafi's football-obsessed son, Saadi.

In 2000, the fans of al-Ahly tired of the alleged match-fixing antics of Saadi, who ran a rival club in Tripoli.
They dressed a donkey in Saadi's football strip and generally behaved in the boorish way most of us expect to see on terraces the world over.

But Saadi's love of the game did not extend to tolerating the puerile behaviour of a few rival fans.

He had the clubhouse razed to the ground and arrested scores of fans - three were sentenced to death.

It is little wonder that among those rampaging around the Katiba were many al-Ahly fans, looking for a sudden-death goal against the regime in extra time.
Job half done
It is a remarkable story for many reasons - not least because the efficiency shown by the Gaddafi regime in knocking down the club stands in complete contrast to its apparent inability to put up any long-lasting legacy, particularly in Benghazi.
A young engineering student called Abdelsalam agreed to take me on a strange tour of the great building projects that the regime, for all its supposed ruthlessness, has failed to see through to completion.

First up, the west Benghazi new town project 2000. "Oil brings us $120bn (£732bn) a year," said Abdelsalam, "and yet everyone lives with their parents."

West Benghazi was supposed to provide the city's youth with an extra 200,000 homes and yet, as far as the eye could see, the husks of incomplete apartment blocks were all that constituted the promised utopia - that, and the many cranes that stood idly by.

Nearby, a placard hailed another Gaddafi project, the great trans-Libyan railway line, linking Tobruk and Egypt in the east with Tripoli and the west, and beyond to Tunisia.

You learned very quickly around here that Col Gaddafi was very fond of placards heralding grand new building projects.
What was happening behind the scaffolding was often very different, as was the case for the great trans-Libyan railway.
There was no great terminus (as yet), but the buffers seemed very soundly constructed. From here, the twin tracks coursed their way through the desert for about 800m before petering out beside a resting goatherd and his flock.
"What did I tell you?" exulted my young engineer guide.

Not only had Gaddafi failed to make the railways run on time he had... um... failed to make the railways.

Then it was off to Benghazi's newly-finished hospital.

"Started 40 years ago and just completed," said Abdelsalam. "They started and finished Dubai in the same time."

Then a look at the far-from-finished and apparently abandoned March 28th football stadium, where Libya hoped to host the 2013 African Cup of Nations tournament.

Other unfinished works included a cafe complex, a golf course and another of the colonel's celebrated man-made rivers, laid low by a big corporate bankruptcy.

"We in Benghazi always know this of Gaddafi," Abdelsalam told me. "The guy just can't finish anything he starts."

So here was a dictator whose diktat did not appear to run as far as building contractors, nor would it seem to the people of Benghazi.

"You can folly some of the people some of the time," said a graffiti message with delightful malapropism on a broken wall inside the Katiba. "But you can't folly all the people all of the time."

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