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A Game Of Life and Death


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I read this article by Martin Geissler in the Reader's Digest, and managed to find it online so that I could copy it into here.

Libya’s Rebel FC

Written by Martin Geissler. 20 September, 2011

Here’s the text of a piece I wrote on a recent trip to Benghazi, Libya. The more I heard about the story, the more fascinated I became. The full piece appears in this month’s Reader’s Digest magazine.

‘The seafront promenade in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, is a busy, vibrant place these days. Still high on revolutionary zeal, people come here to meet, pray, talk and relax. A community now free from the clutches of Muammar Gaddafi.

Vendors sell rebel tat from picnic tables. Hats, t-shirts, sweatbands. It feels more like the outside of a rock concert than the fringes of a revolution. But just a few yards away, photos of the dead and the missing are plastered across vast walls. Hundreds of faces, mostly young men, staring down at the passers-by.

Among it all sits a small tent; it’s unremarkable except for the fact that it’s attracting a lot of interest. It looks like a rotary club stall at a village fête, but it’s not. This is the fan headquarters of Al Ahly Benghazi – Libya’s “Rebel FCâ€.

Inside, a group of supporters have mounted pictures and banners charting the club’s past. It’s a curious mixture, part celebration, part shrine. It provides a perfect illustration of how sport (most often football) can provide a release from life’s misery, a valve for pent up anger and a platform to hit back at an oppressor.

From one banner, the mug shots of 32 supporters gaze down at the visitors. “They’re the ones Gaddafi caught†my new friend, Ahmed, tells me. “He was tired of our dissent, so he rounded up some of the best known fans and made them stand trial in Tripoli. You can see the jail terms printed beside their pictures, some were sent down for just a year, others got ten year sentences.â€

Three of the faces don’t have numbers attached, “What happened to them?â€, I ask. “Well, it was decided they were the ringleadersâ€, Ahmed tells me, “so they were hanged.â€

Al Ahly’s history is full of extraordinary tales. And one name, of course, weaves its way through every story. The Gaddafi family hate Al Ahly. The club became a problem and it paid the price.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was no fan of spectator sport. He didn’t like it because it encouraged the cult of celebrity. He enjoyed BEING a celebrity a great deal, but he couldn’t tolerate the thought that his people could develop other idols, besides him. Such was his paranoia, that he banned all spectator sports in Libya for many years. Only when his wayward son, Saadi, expressed a desire to become a professional footballer, did he relax the law.

Saadi had an extraordinary career to say the least. Using a combination of influence and menace, he won a place with Al Ahli’s namesake club, and great rivals, Al Ahli Tripoli. It was a bad idea to cross Saadi, the prestige of his father’s regime was on the line whenever he played. Before long he was captain of the team, president of the Libyan FA and representing his country at international level.

He had an issue with ability, but that wasn’t a problem. No-one dared criticize him, and tackling him carried a stiff punishment. One former player, who is still too scared to be named, said “When he got the ball, everyone backed off. He had all the time to do what he wanted. It was ridiculousâ€.

“People from Tripoli would call goalkeepers before matches, telling them how Saadi wanted to score. They’d say he’d dreamed about a fantastic goal where he came in from the left, then sent a shot into the top of the net from 10 meters out. We had to make that happen. He really was living the dream.â€

One player who crossed him learned a hard lesson. “He intercepted one of Saadi’s passesâ€, a former team-mate said, “then later he took the ball off him in a tackle, Saadi fell over, there was laughter in the crowd. It was a terrible moment.†The player was visited by a group of security guards in the dressing room after the game, he was badly beaten and never played again.

Saadi, by contrast, moved to Italy, where made a surreal attempt to buy himself a career in Serie A. Despite racking up just 25 minutes of playing time in four years, he managed to sign deals with three different clubs; Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria. Make of that what you will.

By July 2000, fans of Al Ahly Benghazi had had enough. In a game against a team from al Baydah (the hometown of Saadi’s mother), the referee ordered a penalty in the first minute of the second half. The supporters invaded the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned. Later that evening they held a protest in town. During the demo, the local branch of the Libyan FA (headed by Saadi) was burned to the ground. In a dictatorship where even whispered dissent was intolerable, this was an outrage. That very night Colonel Gaddafi vowed to crush Al Ahli, and it didn’t take him long.

Within hours the feared secret police were knocking on the doors of 50 prominent fans. They were rounded up and taken to Tripoli, 1000km away, to stand trial. Among them was Khalifa Ben Sriti. 50 years old, a club director and former player of some repute. “It came as a total shockâ€, he said “I wasn’t even aware of the protests, far less involved in themâ€.

Khalifa was locked up in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Saleem jail. He spent the first month in solitary confinement in a 6ft x 2ft cell. He is a tall, dignified man. “It was the size of a coffin, this cellâ€, he told me, “there was no window, a hole in the ceiling was my only source of light. My head was touching one wall, my feet pressed against the other. I was given two bottles, one to drink from, the other was my toilet. I wanted to die.â€

After a month, Khalifa was transferred to another jail, where he was put in a cell with eight other men from Benghazi. After nine months and seven court appearances he was released. A case of mistaken identity, apparently. Most of his friends weren’t so lucky. 29 of them were jailed for up to ten years. Three others were hanged

.

When Khalifa gat back to Benghazi, his beloved club was gone. Gaddafi had sent in the Bulldozers. 50 years of history demolished in a couple of days.

“It was a crimeâ€, Khalifa told me “this wasn’t just a football team, it was a community club. We had basketball and handball courts, all round the first team’s training pitch. Five a side pitches too, the people could use them all, then overnight they were gone.â€

As we walk round the rubble, a man in dungarees runs up to Khalifa, the pair embrace warmly. They speak in Arabic for a while, the younger man delighted to see his old friend again. “This is Henri†Khalifa tells me “he was the groundsman here for years, he helped to build the place and then had to watch as it was torn down.â€

Henri remembers the day clearly. “They came on a Friday†he says, “we were about to go to the mosque to pray when the door of our workshop was kicked in. We all recognized the man standing there, he was Salah Sharif, a former prison guard, a well known and much feared member of Gaddafi’s spy network.†(Sharif died in the early days of the Libyan revolution. He was found with his head blown off. Suicide, the rebels say, but execution, or payback, is just as likely).

“He told us we had to go out to watch. There were soldiers and armed police everywhere, completely encircling the complex. Then the bulldozers came. There were four of them. The first one smashed the big concrete logo that stood at the gates. Sharif was shrieking with delight. All around us the soldiers were whooping and firing their guns in the air. I wanted to cry.â€

Over the next two days the twenty acre site was reduced to rubble. The pitches, the grandstands, the dressing rooms, the accommodation block, nothing was left.

“On the second day a motorcade came round the complexâ€, Henri said, “The people in the cars looked terrifying, there were soldiers in the back of pick up trucks. In the middle of it all was a Land Cruiser with blacked out windows. We never saw him, but we all knew it was Saadi Gaddafi.†He’d come to see his father’s bidding done.

For five years, Al Ahly lay dormant. But just as suddenly as he’d crushed the club, Gaddafi allowed them to rise from the rubble. In trademark style, he made the announcement without warning. Apparently concerned at early signs of unrest in his country, he relaxed certain aspects of his strict grip on power. Television censorship, while still strict, was no longer suffocating – and Benghazi, the cradle of any Libyan dissent, was given its team back. “That’ll fix itâ€, he must have thought.

But while the team was allowed back, the playing environment was as bizarre as ever. Abdel, a commentator on Libyan radio, has seen it all. A short, stout, angry character in his mid-thirties, Abdel shouts his way through life with great enthusiasm.

“I had to do a ridiculous jobâ€, he told me. “It was terrifying. Government agents would listen to all my commentaries, they just wanted me to peddle propaganda. would have to mention Colonel Gaddafi every few minutes. “This is a great gameâ€, I’d say, “and please remember it is only through the generosity of our leader Colonel Gaddafi that we are allowed football, we must thank him. It was ridiculousâ€.

“And it got worse – I wasn’t allowed to mention players names, just their numbers. And whenever anything good happened, I’d have to say it reminded me of the talents of Saadi Gaddafi. “Number seven scored a great goalâ€, I’d say, there are only a few players who could score a goal of this quality – Maradona, Lineker, Gascoigne – and, of course, the great Saadi Gaddafi.†I had to give the Gaddafis – father and son – 90% of my attention. I wouldn’t mind, but he was a useless player, completely useless!â€

But everything has changed in this Arab Spring and now Abdel – like all fans of Libyan football – is looking forward to a new lease of life. “The revolution meant our football season was scrapped,†he tells me, “but now we’ve kicked Gaddafi out, we’ll start playing again. The atmosphere will be so wonderful.â€

It’s easy to believe him. The whole city of Benghazi has an air of emancipation. This was the birthplace of the revolution, the first city to rise up and reclaim its streets. The people smile, they’re courteous and charming, they’re all still in the first flush of love with their new found liberty.

“We’re breathing different air nowâ€, Ahmed tells me. “It’s deep within our lungs just wait til we get back into the stadium and release it – we’ll be able to release our souls for the first time ever. No more secret police, listening to what we say, no more surveillance cameras filming faces in the crowd. We’ll be free.â€

He thinks for a second, the beginnings of a frown forming on his forehead, I ask him what’s up? “The stadiumâ€, he tells me, “it’s new. It was built with money from Venezuela so they called it the Hugo Chavez stadium…†then a broad smile breaks out and his eyes light up “But we’ll soon change thatâ€, he tells me, slapping my thigh.

His laughter is infectious, as is his enthusiasm. Better times lie ahead for him, and Al Ahly Benghazi, no doubt. Libya’s Rebel FC are on the march again.’

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