Soccer-Starved Libya Seeks Game’s Return After Post-Qaddafi Vote

As Libya awaits the results of its first election since Muammar Qaddafi was deposed in an uprising, local soccer officials are banking on the vote to help bring the country’s most-popular sport out of a 17-month hiatus.

Libyans went to the polls July 7 in the first free national election in more than four decades and amid a struggle to restore order after Qaddafi’s rule ended in August. Once a government is chosen to replace the Transitional National Council, the suspension on domestic soccer will be lifted, said Libyan Football Federation board member Issa Alsagair.

“We are determined to start in August or September because by then we should have our national parliament,” Alsagair said in an interview. “We have a very good chance to start the league in August.”

No matches in the Libyan championship have been played since Feb. 1, 2011 following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-backed uprising, during which Qaddafi was forced from power and later killed. The national team hasn’t played at home since beating Benin 3-2 in Tripoli eight days after domestic soccer was halted.

During his 42-year rule, Qaddafi controlled every aspect of Libyan society, including what happened on the soccer field. Al-Saadi Qaddafi, one of the dictator’s six sons, played for Libya’s national team at the same time as being president of its soccer federation. The 39-year-old is currently in Niger, where he fled during the fight to depose his father.

Sports Dictator

“Can you imagine a dictatorship like Qaddafi’s ruling the country for over 42 years where he has six sons who are interfering in every move we make?” said Alsagair. “They were leading the Libyan Olympic Committee, the Libyan Football Federation, everything, you name it.”

Qaddafi’s regime suppressed the ability of soccer players to become popular national figures by issuing decrees such as banning commentators from identifying anyone other than his son during live broadcasts of matches.

“They would not mention the names, they would say number nine, eight, seven and so on,” Alsagair said.

Commentators would rarely mention No. 10 because no player, anywhere in Libya, was allowed to wear that jersey number apart from al-Saadi, and matches were fixed to favor the whims of the ruling family, Alsagair added.

Players who spoke out against the regime suffered. Libya’s transitional government last year approved an investigation into the murder of Bashir al-Ryani, a soccer player who was tortured and killed in 2005.

“He made a statement in public and after one and a half hours or two hours he was found dead,” said Alsagair.

World Cup Bid

Although Libya has never competed at a World Cup, soccer is the nation’s most popular sport. It finished runner-up at the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations as host. Qaddafi even made a failed bid to become the first African nation to stage the global championship in 2010, an honor that went to South Africa.

“It was a big joke really,” said Alsagair. “They knew the influence of football and they used it for themselves. We as Libyans know we couldn’t host a World Cup.”

The Mediterranean Knights, as the national team is known, currently top their African qualifying group for the 2014 edition. The winners of the 10 four-team pools will be paired into home-and-away series to determine the continent’s five spots at the tournament in Brazil.

Forced to play on the road for almost 1 1/2 years, Libya has lost just twice in 16 games and has risen to a team-high 39th in FIFA’s world rankings.

Cup Final

On July 6, the day before the country went to the polls, Libya played in the Arab Nations Cup final, losing 3-1 to Morocco in a penalty shootout after the match finished 1-1. The run at the 11-team event followed an appearance at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations that included its first victory in the tournament outside of Libya.

While the nation remains fractured along tribal and political lines following the fall of Qaddafi, soccer could play a part in bringing it together, according to Alsagair.

“All players, sportsmen and athletes are doing their best to join the country, going from place to place to try and encourage reconciliation because Qaddafi did a lot to damage Libyans,” he said.

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