In Benghazi, Pre-Revolution Soccer Rivalry Now Played For Keeps On Battlefield
Jailed and tortured under Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose son ran the rival team, Benghazi's local club supporters are now at the heart of the Libyan revolution.
BENGHAZI – 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."
Read the original article in French.
Photo - Al Jazeera