By Juliane von Mittelstaedt
Abd al-Salam Thau speaks without moving his lips. He says that the torturers knocked out his incisors, but he can't afford new ones. Thau, 42, is a dark, muscular man, and it was his misfortune to have led the Al-Ahly fan club at the time of the 2000 revolt. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and claims to have been tortured every day for three months.
After five years, Moammar Gadhafi pardoned him along with those who had been sentenced to death. There were only two left since one had already committed suicide in prison.
Al-Ahly Benghazi SC was allowed to reopen. But this wasn't because Gadhafi felt sorry for it. Instead, it was because having imprisoned soccer players would have hurt his efforts to win greater recognition from the West.
The club was given a trash-strewn plot of land in Benghazi with a few sheds on it. For years, it was promised funding for a training center, but to this day the only new features at the site are the grass pitch and the fence surrounding it. Since most major companies sided with the regime, it didn't have any sponsors.
According to Thau, the team was only allowed to play important matches without any fans present, as if they didn't exist.
Ruses and Refusals
Ironically, 11 years after the first soccer uprising, it was Saadi Gadhafi who was in Benghazi on Feb. 17, the day now considered the beginning of the Libyan revolution.
This was also the day that the dictator's son reportedly ordered soldiers to open fire on protesters. It was a continuation of his battle against Al-Ahly, and the goal was the same as before: total destruction.
On that day, while sitting in a broadcast studio, Saadi reportedly said with a sigh that he would support Al-Ahly Benghazi SC, that he would correct the mistakes of the past, that Al-Ahly would be transformed into the best team in Libya and that it would enjoy the full support of the Gadhafi family. The regime was trying to use football for its own purposes one last time.
"No one in Benghazi believed him, not after everything he'd done to Ahly," says Moataz Ben Amer, the captain of the club for the last five years. Ben Amer is a midfielder, a small-framed 29-year-old with eyes that twitch nervously when the conversation turns to the Gadhafis.
Ben Amer was also supposed to help stop the revolution -- with the power of football. In the first days of the uprising, he received a phone call. The man on the other end ordered him to come to the television studio immediately. He said that Ben Amer would have to publicly condemn the protests -- and that bad things would happen to him if he refused. Ben Amer hung up. They tried to call him several times after that, but Ben Amer didn't answer. It was his first act of resistance. His voice still slightly trembles when he talks about it.
Tentatively Backing the Revolution
In those early days of the revolution, Ben Amer wasn't the only soccer player asked to defend the regime. The president of Al-Ahly Tripoli, Saadi's old club, was also told to support the regime. He was prompted to say that the rebels in Benghazi were affiliated with al-Qaida. But he refused and fled.
A few weeks ago, some members of the national team joined the rebels. "We don't want to be used anymore," says Ben Amer. "We want democracy and freedom, and we want soccer back."
Ben Amer knows Saadi Gadhafi well after having played on the same squad with him in Tripoli for a season. "It wasn't easy," Ben Amer says quietly. "Saadi was the captain, and he wanted to shoot the goals. When Saadi was furious because someone passed him the ball incorrectly, he would start beating him. Or he would have his hair shaved off. Sometimes he also set his dogs on a player."
Ben Amer still fears the long arm of the Gadhafis. He avoids leaving the house he shares with his parents and siblings, an unadorned one-story concrete building. Two trophies stand on a little embroidered blanket in the living room. One is for 26 successful penalty kicks in a row, which he says is an African record. "But there was one taboo: We were not allowed to be champions," he explains. As a rule, the champion could only be either Al-Ahly or Al-Ittihad, the Tripoli-based clubs sponsored by Gadhafi's sons.
Waiting for Renewal
After the revolution began, Al-Ahly Benghazi SC was once again dissolved. The president installed by the Gadhafis fled abroad amid rumors that he had been involved in efforts to put down the February revolution. The Tunisian coach returned to his home country, as did the players from Nigeria, Mali and Tunisia. Others joined the rebels fighting at the front.
Today, only half of the team is still in Benghazi. They occasionally go running together in a small patch of woods outside the city. It's their only training at the moment. "Our club isn't a club; it's a pile of garbage," Ben Amer says. "We have absolutely nothing. I make enough money to support my parents and my siblings, but it's always barely enough to get by." He now sells athletic clothing in Benghazi's only Adidas shop.
Ben Amer has given money to the rebels, and he and his fellow team members have bought them clothing, food and AK-47s. They have also donated blood and driven to Misurata to visit the wounded. Still, Ben Amer doesn't want to go to the front, and he doesn't consider himself a fighter.
He says that he and his fellow team members had wanted to hold a friendly match in Benghazi. It would have been the first match in freedom, and he believes it would have triggered a major celebration. But the rebels' Transitional National Council opposed the idea, Ben Amer says, because they feared it might draw attacks by Gadhafi supporters.
Perhaps, the captain hopes, they could hold a match between the two Ahly clubs -- Al-Ahly Benghazi and Al-Ahly Tripoli -- sometime soon. If it does happen, only one simple rule will apply to the match: May the best team win.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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