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In Kadafi's Libya, even soccer was ruthless

In Benghazi, the beloved soccer club ran afoul of Moammar Kadafi and his soccer enthusiast son, Saadi. The result was the destruction of the team and its facilities more than a decade ago.

May 14, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • In the late 1990s, Saadi Kadafi, the son of Libya's leader, adopted a leading Tripoli team while he also headed the national football federation. His thirst for revenge against the Benghazi soccer club, residents of the city say, led to its eradication and a wave of arrests.
In the late 1990s, Saadi Kadafi, the son of Libya's leader, adopted… (Dan Peled, Associated Press )

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — It is one of Libya's oldest and most venerable institutions, predating not only Moammar Kadafi's rule but independence in 1951, and boasting what is perhaps the country's most fervent fan base.

But in a police state where soccer served as a substitute for resistance, the lads from the Al Ahli sports club angered the wrong crowd: Kadafi and his soccer-besotted son, Saadi.

The club paid a steep price: Its grounds were demolished, its signature Al Ahli Benghazi soccer team was dissolved, its red-and-white colors were removed from public display. Dozens of supporters were sent to prison, with some sentenced to death for subversion.

It was akin to someone abruptly disbanding the Dodgers, razing Chavez Ravine and outlawing the wearing of Dodger-blue caps, jackets and T-shirts.

The story of Kadafi's bludgeoning of Al Ahli offers a look at the obsessive and often ruthless behavior of a regime long closed to international scrutiny, of a leader so megalomaniacal that he forbade sports broadcasters from using players' names, demanding that they be referred to only by their numbers lest they become too popular.

Although Kadafi crushed the club 12 years ago, the rebel triumph here in the east has afforded fans and others the freedom to speak openly for the first time about the still-raw episode.

"Our club has always been very emotional; we have very passionate fans," said Khalifa Binsraiti, a longtime club official who went to jail during the crackdown. "But it was sport. No one ever imagined it would come to this."

The saga centers on Saadi Kadafi, a family bad boy often photographed in designer shades.

Few things anger Libyans more than what many view as the arbitrary authority wielded by Kadafi's sons, widely feared power brokers with unrestricted checkbooks, access to goon squads and a taste for lavish lifestyles.

Saadi is a noted soccer enthusiast and business dabbler with a history of excess. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable about Kadafi's "famously fractious" offspring, disclosed by WikiLeaks, labeled him "notoriously ill-behaved" and known for his "excessive partying" and "scuffles with police in Europe."

Alas, Saadi's soccer abilities didn't measure up to his passion for the game.

"Saadi was never much of a player," said Zain Abidin Burkan, a prominent sports journalist here. "But in the end, it didn't matter. His name was Kadafi."

In the late 1990s, the young Kadafi adopted a leading Tripoli team, also called Al Ahli. He became a player, captain, de facto manager and owner. And at the same time, he also headed the national football federation, becoming Libya's soccer czar.

"It was a complete corruption of the sport," says Burkan, a thin, jittery figure still outraged by the audacious conflict of interest.

Inevitably, Saadi's close identification with the Tripoli club meant that its fortunes became entwined with the leadership's prestige.

Saadi's team evolved into a powerhouse. He was able to buy the best players and, when needed, to bribe and bully referees and linesmen into making calls favoring his team, Burkan and others say.

"The referees were always against us," says Nasser Mohammed, 38, an Ahli Benghazi fan who slings cappuccino at a popular cafe in a country where quality coffee is one bequest of the long-ago Italian occupation. "Anything to make us lose."

During one national cup final match in Benghazi, witnesses say, Saadi and his team were mercilessly booed in front of a crowd featuring several dignitaries from sub-Saharan Africa, a region where his father was seeking to extend his influence. Afterward, Saadi was apoplectic.

"I will destroy your club!" Binsraiti, then Al Ahli's soccer chief, says he was told by an irate Saadi after that match. "I will turn it into an owl's nest!"

Saadi's drive for revenge, fans say, came to a head at a crucial match in July 1999.

Al Ahli needed a victory against another team, Al Akhdar, to avoid being demoted to the second division, a profound blow for a proud franchise. The first half ended in a 0-0 draw.

But in the second half, a questionable penalty was called against Al Ahli; its opponent was awarded a penalty kick that would probably break the deadlock. Fans erupted in collective indignation. The coach confronted the referee, allegedly shoving him. Spectators stormed the pitch. The game was suspended. A loss for Al Ahli.

The fuming Al Ahli faithful mounted a march downtown, shouting slogans denouncing Saadi. The angry mob set fire to the building of the national soccer federation. They also burned a likeness of Moammar Kadafi, a grievous offense.

"I was ready to die that day, I was so frustrated," says Ali Ali, 48, a businessman who was among the enraged crowd. "We were all ready to die."

Plainclothes security men soon began arriving at the homes of rioters. About 80 people were arrested, witnesses say. Most were soon released, but about 30 were sent for trial in Tripoli.

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