African leaders frequently admit to cultivating a passion for football. Sometimes it’s genuine, but it can also be guided by a more sinister interest – such as when it’s intended to help a leader reap the glory of a national team or club’s success.
This attitude is shared by every leader on the planet who has an opportunistic relationship with the world’s favourite sport.
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi wrote about his unequivocal aversion to sport in general and football in particular in The Green Book: “The thousands who crowd stadiums to view, applaud and laugh are foolish people who have failed to carry out the activity themselves. They line up lethargically in the stands of the sports grounds, and applaud those heroes who wrest from them the initiative, dominate the field and control the sport and, in so doing, exploit the facilities that the masses provide.”
The writing is pure Gaddafi, but the man who led Libya with an iron fist from 1969 until 2011 was more than just a man with an outsize ego. He also knew how to go back on his promises, a behaviour driven by a political instinct that can’t be denied.
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He definitely hated football, but at the same time he understood he could extract a certain advantage from it, particularly after his regime was accused of trampling on human rights and financing terrorism and thus scrambled to makeover its international reputation. The beautiful game represented a trump card for the colonel responsible for deposing King Idris I.
The first true foray into the green pitch for the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya dates back to 1982, after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) named Libya as the host of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Gaddafi, who ordered the construction of a 60,000-seat stadium in Tripoli for the event, dreamed of the Libyan team winning the competition and was already thinking he could benefit from such a victory, as he had laid the foundations of an unabashed cult of personality after his rise to power.
But it was not to be, as Libya lost in the final round to Ghana (1-1, then 7-8 in the penalty shoot-out), and the Guide, upset, turned his back on football for many years. The story goes that on the evening of the opening ceremony, the whimsical colonel ended one of his characteristically long speeches with a very final phrase directed at his audience: “All you stupid spectators, have your stupid game.”
Football stars in Tripoli
The Guide’s calculated interest in Libya’s most popular sport would make a comeback two decades later, thanks to the influence of two of his sons: Saadi and Muhammad. Saadi was head of the Tripoli-based Al-Ittihad Club at the time, while also cumulating the roles of professional player on the team, captain of Libya’s national team and president of the Libyan Football Federation. Muhammad, who oversaw Al-Ahly Tripoli (with Saadi on the team roster), settled for reigning over his club.
Libya gradually opened its doors to foreign coaches and players, like when the federation hired the Argentinian national Carlos Bilardo, who had managed Argentina’s national football team during its World Cup victory in 1986, to lead Libya’s national team.
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Later on, Saadi, with the tacit agreement of his father, a champion of Pan-Africanism, successfully convinced famous African players – including the likes of Nigeria’s Victor Ikpeba and Cameroon’s Patrick Mboma – to sign on to Libya’s first-division team. Mboma, former captain of the Indomitable Lions (the Cameroonian national team) and player with the Paris Saint-Germain Club as well as on teams in Japan, Italy and England, joined Al-Ittihad Tripoli in 2002.
“Since I didn’t really want to go to Libya, I asked for three times the salary Parma was paying me, and Saadi accepted. Although I did get my signing bonus, I never received my salary. The authorities had my passport, but I asked to return to France for Christmas and New Year in December 2002 so that I could leave the country and never go back. Saadi had complete control over my comings and goings,” said the ex-striker, scarred by the difficult experience.
Libya had become reputable again. Several foreign teams travelled to Tripoli to compete against the Mediterranean Knights, including Canada (2-4) and Argentina (1-3) in 2003, Ukraine (1-1) in 2004 and Uruguay (2-3) in 2009.
The Libya national team was even playing matches in Europe, something that had been unthinkable just a few years earlier, beating Qatar in Rome (1-0) in 2004 and losing to Ukraine (0-3) in Switzerland in 2006.
Libya purchases Juventus stake
The Libyan regime also decided to make foreign investments, particularly in Italy, the former colonial power which had ruled the country from 1911 to 1947. Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi remained on rather cordial terms, at least for a while.
With the help of these ties, Libya, via the Libyan Forest Investment Company (LAFICO), purchased a 7.5% stake in Juventus Turin in 2002. The Libyan oil company Tamoil sponsored the Turin-based club after making its appearance on AS Monaco’s uniforms just a short time before.
Saadi’s activism, still condoned by his father, even allowed him to score a contract with the Serie A club Perugia. It wasn’t exactly a coincidence, as the club was owned by the large Italian lender Capitalia and the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank – none other than the holding company of the Republic of Libya – held 5% of Capitalia.
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In 2002, the Supercoppa Italiana between Juventus and Parma (2-1) was even moved to Tripoli. Incidentally, Saadi would later go on to play for Udinese and eventually Sampdoria Genoa, but he spent a mere 25 minutes on the pitch over the course of his entire Italian football career.
The colonel and ‘the FIFA mafia’
Around the same time period, Libya and Tunisia launched a joint bid to host the 2010 World Cup, although South Africa was ultimately selected as the host nation.
Gaddafi, who was ready to pour hundreds of millions of euros into the event, was upset by the decision and issued a scathing attack on FIFA, describing it as “a mafia which makes billions off of human trafficking when it would do better to help poor countries host the World Cup”.
Further down the line, the Libyan regime received a small consolation prize when the CAF awarded the country the 2013 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. Nevertheless, the fall of the Libyan regime in 2011, political instability and the country’s security issues led the CAF to change the host nation to South Africa.
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