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."
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