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The club that defied Gaddafi

sports Updated: May 27, 2011 01:12 IST

The story of the Al-Ahly Benghazi football club offers a window into the mindset of the Gaddafi family and explains some of the resentment that led to the revolution there.

For more than a decade Muammar Gaddafi and his footballing son, Saadi, conspired to destroy Libya’s oldest club. In 2000, the club faced relegation and the primary reason, the squad insisted, was a conspiracy by Saadi who captained Ah Ahly Tripoli and headed the Libyan Football Federation.

Having already used his wallet to lure several Benghazi players to Tripoli, Saadi set about rigging games by bribing or coercing match officials. Indeed, throughout the season, Al-Ahly appeared to be on the wrong side of refereeing decisions. On 20 July 2000, the team needed a draw from their last game to survive and their opponents were awarded a dubious penalty and Benghazi fans invaded the pitch, forcing the match to be abandoned. A donkey made an appearance, clad in a shirt with Saadi’s number.

Gaddafi waited until 1 September to take revenge. During Friday prayers, bulldozers destroyed Al-Ahly’s training ground and team offices. The club was hit with relegation and an indefinite ban.

32 fans and staff were sent to prison in Tripoli, most were given sentences of between three and 10 years. Three men received the death penalty.

Today, the site contains only a building and a training field. At the old ground, piles of rubble are all that remain. “We still don’t know why Gaddafi did this to Al-Ahly,” said Moataz Ben Amer, the current club captain. “Football takes the attention of the youth away from bigger issues like politics. But Gaddafi does not understand that.”

Curiosly, Gaddafi sent Saadi to Benghazi in February to end the uprising. Realising he had no chance, Saadi exited, but not before giving orders to shoot unarmed protesters, according to local people and a BBC Panorama report.