DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — For the first time in decades, soccer in Libya is just about, well, soccer.
Gone in the uprising that ousted Moammar Gadhafi is Al-Saadi Gadhafi, who dominated the game and intimidated players during the last years of his father's 42-year rule.
"It's about the ball and kicking the ball without fear and pressure so we can win for our country, for free Libya," said Ali al-Aswad, the manager of the national team and a former player for Tripoli club Al Ahli, the late dictator's favorite team.
Soccer had been in the shadows in Libya since February, when the revolt against Gadhafi's regime erupted in the North African country. Players either left Libya to play for clubs in neighboring countries or joined the rebels.
Days after anti-Gadhafi forces overran Tripoli in late August, assistant coach Abdul Hafid Arbesh went looking for soccer players around the chaotic capital. He wanted to put together a national team to take them on an epic journey to Egypt for Libya's first international match under the red, black and green revolutionary flag that has replaced the old regime's green banner.
After a bus ride to neighboring Tunisia, a flight to Libya's eastern city of Benghazi and from there another flight to Cairo, Arbesh's squad was in a stadium in the Egyptian capital, facing Mozambique in an African Cup of Nations qualifying match. Libya won 1-0.
"I brought the men together on the field and I held in my hand the new flag we put together on the bus and said: 'You are just like the rebels. You should fight like the rebels and make the mothers of the martyrs proud,'" Arbesh said.
Fresh from the front line, 25-year-old midfielder Walid al-Katroushi knew what to do.
Al-Katroushi was fighting alongside the rebel forces since April, when he traded soccer training camp in Tunisia for a war zone in his homeland. He said he couldn't continue playing while so many people were dying in efforts to liberate their country.
"When I joined the rebels, I forgot about football," al-Katroushi said in an interview during a training camp in Dubai. "I changed my clothes. I shaved my hair. I forgot everything, even my family."
As a soccer player on the front line, al-Katroushi said he was spoiled by the rebels. They respected him for leaving the game and joining the fight against Gadhafi.
"They gave me the best they had," al-Katroushi said. "When there were not enough bulletproof vests, some fighters took off their own and gave them to me."
"They were very afraid for me and afraid that I would get hurt in any way," al-Katroushi added. "They were very kind to me. They said I was too gentle to face the bullets."
Gadhafi's two sons, al-Saadi and Mohammed, dominated Libyan soccer and — along with their father — terrorized the players. Al-Saadi Gadhafi served as the president of the Libyan soccer federation until he escaped to Niger in September. He also had ambitions as a player, using his money and influence to play in Libya and even, briefly, in Italy for Perugia.
"All decisions were with them," al-Aswad said. "He would tell us when to play and how to play and if to play at all."
Al-Saadi would pull the national team off the field minutes before a match on the other side of the world, al-Aswad said. He'd bribe star players to score at some matches and threatened them with beatings if they scored at others. He ordered a club in Benghazi leveled.
Al-Aswad even holds al-Saadi responsible for the killing of a famous player, Bashir Riyan, in 2004.
"We suffered a lot," al-Aswad said. "It was like the ball only belonged to him and soccer players and the national team were his hostages."
Still, Libyan soccer has survived the regime and last month, the national team beat long odds to qualify for next year's African Cup. The team's new captain — goalkeeper Samir Aboud — is in the running for the African Player of the Year award after Libya defied political upheaval at home to reach Africa's top tournament.
Many players have family members and friends among the revolution's victims. Ahmed al-Sgayer, a defender who also fought alongside rebel forces, was shot in the arm and was hospitalized for weeks before he returned to soccer. Midfielder Abdullah al-Sharif lost an uncle in a NATO bombing and a cousin, who fought on the rebels' side.
His loyalty was always to soccer, al-Sharif said.
"There's a different flag and a different anthem, but I will always be proud to play for Libya," al-Sharif said.
The African Cup starts Jan. 21 and will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Libya will be in Group A along with Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Zambia.
Next month, Libya will also play in the Arab Games, hosted by the Gulf country of Qatar, which sent war planes to Libya to help topple the Gadhafi regime. They will face Jordan, Palestine and Sudan in the group stage of Middle East's biggest sports event.Comment on this story
Libya hosted the African Cup of Nations in 1982 and reached the final that year, losing to Ghana. The North African country also reached the continental tournament in 2006 when it was hosted by Egypt.
A good performance in the African Cup is the team's goal, but Arbesh said the players are already dreaming about qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Libya has never qualified, but Arbesh said he's always felt the country had talent that couldn't thrive because of the oppression.
"We needed support, not fear to win," Arbesh said. "Without Gadhafi's shackles, we can go far. Very far."