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07/15/2011 01:34 PM

Libya's Soccer Rebellion

A Revolution Foreshadowed on the Pitch of Benghazi

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

In the summer of 2000, thousands of Libyans in Benghazi launched a spontaneous revolt against the Gadhafi regime after their hometown soccer team suffered one insult too many. Only now can the survivors tell the story of this little-known revolt -- and how it became the opening salvo of the current revolution.

Chalifa Binsraiti presses his arms to his sides to show how wide the cell was. Then he wiggles his toes and places a hand over his head to show how long the cell was. The 65-year-old had to lie in that tiny cell for a month -- alone, in the dark and with two bottles next to him: one for water, one for urine. He had been accused of being an enemy of the people, of wanting to form an anti-government party and of conspiring with other regime opponents abroad.

But it was really about soccer.

Binsraiti is a quiet, friendly giant of a man with laugh lines that don't seem to fit with his past. He was a sports manager of the Al-Ahly Benghazi SC soccer club for 15 years, including the four when the club was banned. After the incident in 2000, he spent nine months in prison. "And it was all because of a football match," he says.

Binsraiti smiles and pauses for a moment. Now he can finally tell strangers the story of Al-Ahly Benghazi, an incomprehensible story that reveals the lunacy that prevailed in Libya for 42 years -- and says a lot about why, today, Benghazi is the capital of Libya's rebellion.

A History of Hatred

Very little is known about Libya during these years. The country was shut off from the outside world, particularly for foreign journalists. Some things are difficult to verify, and some stories might have evolved into exaggerated urban myths.

The story Binsraiti tells is unusual even for Libya. It's especially striking for what it says about the blind wrath that led Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his son Saadi to destroy one of the oldest football clubs in the country, founded in 1947. They had dozens of fans tortured, 32 were sentenced to prison terms, three were sentenced to death, the club was banned and its headquarters were demolished. The same relentless brutality that Gadhafi and his family are now directing against their own people was once directed against this club and its supporters.

Binsraiti has arranged to meet us at the club's former training site. He is standing in a field of weeds littered with empty paint buckets and cans. Smashed bleachers provide the only clue that this was once a soccer field. Trees are now growing among the stands, and the floodlight supports tower over us like steel skeletons. "This was once the headquarters of Al-Ahly," Binsraiti says. "That over there was the indoor basketball court, and the tennis court was over there," he says, gesturing toward piles of garbage and rubble. A pink rhododendron is blooming in the midst of the debris.

A black building once used by Libyan intelligence looms over the field as a grim reminder of the surveillance the club and Libyan society as a whole had to put with for decades. Protesters torched the building in February along with many military barracks, former torture chambers and police stations in the city.

This time the revolution succeeded. But that first attempt, known as "the soccer revolution" of 2000, was a failure.

Libya 's Self-Appointed Soccer King

The Gadhafis had always had an ambivalent and somewhat paranoid relationship with soccer. They used it, and yet they were deeply suspicious of it. Soccer matches served as a backdrop for Gadhafi's public appearances, but he also used the stadiums to strike fear into the hearts of Libyans by having real and suspected regime opponents hanged in them. Stadium announcers and sports commentators were only allowed to refer to players by their jersey numbers; no one could be more popular than the dictator.

Gadhafi's son Saadi made himself king of the Libyan soccer world. In the late 1990s, he was appointed president of the Libyan Football Federation. He also became captain of the national team and the owner, manager and captain of the Al-Ahly Tripoli SC. Later, when Libya became too small for him, he bought his way onto the Italian first-division teams Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria. Over the four years he was with these clubs, he spent a total of 25 minutes on the field.

Saadi was a laughing stock in Italy. But, in Libya, he was omnipotent. As long as he ruled over Al-Ahly Tripoli SC, he was determined to make sure it was the best club in Libya and even all of Africa. He had also made up his mind that it would be the only club to bear the traditional name Ahly.

The Boiling Point

It is this decision that led to Saadi's campaign against the club in Benghazi with a similar name. He bought its best players and bribed referees. On a hot July day in 2000, it appeared that his efforts were about to pay off when Benghazi was on the verge of being relegated to the second division.

On that day, Binsraiti was sitting with his team in the stadium while Saadi was sitting in the stands. According to Binsraiti, there were more than 30,000 fans in the stadium. "It was the typical story," he says. "The opposing team was being awarded one penalty kick after another." In their everyday lives, the people of Benghazi were used to putting up with injustices. But now they had had enough.

"The entire stadium was against Saadi," Binsraiti says. "Everyone had a relative or a friend in prison, and everyone knew someone who had been killed or stripped of their property."

"Benghazi hated the Gadhafis," Binsraiti adds. "But, on that day, it hated Saadi in particular."

The men in the stadium began to boo, and the booing grew into a roar. A crowd of hundreds stormed the field and spilled out into the streets. They burned posters of Gadhafi and set the local office of the Libyan Football Federation on fire. At one point, someone dressed a donkey in a jersey with Saadi Gadhafi's number on it.

Security forces were sent in and quickly crushed the spontaneous uprising. About 80 fans and club employees were arrested and vanished into torture chambers. Benghazi fell back into its usual lethargy.

A Prince's Revenge

"I will destroy your club," Saadi reportedly threatened. "I will turn it into an owl's nest."

He waited until Sept. 1, 2000, the 31st anniversary of his father's revolution. On that day, soldiers razed the hated club's headquarters as a gift to their revered leader.

"They destroyed the club emblem and the gate, and then they sent in three bulldozers to mow everything down," Binsraiti recounts. "It took three or four hours. They forced people to watch and cheer. That evening, they broadcast the destruction on television."

Of course, Binsraiti only got this information second-hand, from a former janitor, since he was in prison at the time.

The soldiers returned the next day to finish the job. Their orders were to not leave a single wall of the clubhouse standing and to transform the building into nothing more than dust and debris.

"The destruction of Al-Ahly also contributed to our current revolution," Binsraiti says. Indeed, fans and players were among the first protesters, and they were also among those who stormed the "Katiba," the city's main military base. This act allowed the rebels to score their first important victory against the regime. Volunteers went to the front wearing Ahly jerseys, and one of the team's midfielders died in the fighting in Misurata.

Resurrected as a Ghost

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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