Back from war but still up for a tussle, Libya’s small circle of rugby players are preparing for a new season, hoping the post-Muammar Qaddafi era may prove fertile ground for a sport they say could help them readjust to everyday life.
Unloved under the former regime for its rough play and fanbase in Benghazi ̶ Libya’s second city, which was neglected under Qaddafi ̶ players say the game could now make inroads with young Libyans who mostly play soccer.
And proponents of the sport say its intense teamwork and emphasis on fair play make it particularly useful for integrating young men, fresh from combat, into society.
“Sport in general is going to be key for this. We need to keep the youth busy to alleviate the trauma of war,” said Thair el-Heri, a Libyan-born Briton who founded the country's first home-grown clubs in Benghazi just five years ago.
The son of a Libyan wrestling champion who grew up near Brighton, England, el-Heri led Libya’s national rugby union team to its first competition in Egypt, when players were forced to show off portraits of Qaddafi at tournaments.
A handful of curious teenagers began to test el-Heri's theory over the weekend, turning up at a crumbling sports complex to practice with Benghazi’s Helal Warriors team.
“The youth is very open to new things now, so there’s lot of potential,” said Seraj el-Alem, 24, running to the pitch while Arabic pop music blasted from a tinny radio, almost drowning out sporadic gunfire from a nearby arms market.
“Libyans are fighters and we’ve just proved it. People here will be drawn to the intense physical side of the sport,” he added.
Foreigners ̶ mostly British, Italian and French oil workers ̶ have been playing rugby in Libya since at least the 1970s, but domestic teams only started to emerge in 2007 and the country’s first official tournament was not held until 2008.
Rugby discipline helped fight
Working with the regime and, in particular, Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, was a prerequisite for promoting the sport in its earliest days, but it may have been a poor bargain for el-Heri personally as some players now want to purge rugby of anyone involved with its past.
“I understand their sensitivities,” el-Heri said. “I resigned as the national coach to step back for a moment while everything is reorganized.”
Most players had spent the past months at the front where one had been killed and several badly wounded, he added.
In sport just as in politics, rivalries between Benghazi and the capital Tripoli were exacerbated under Gaddafi, given the rampant corruption in state-run athletics.
El-Heri said that in the past, corruption was so rife that up to 90 percent of team budgets had to be paid back to Tripoli as bribes to secure the release of any funding.
“If you were to investigate it there would be a lot of public embarrassment,” he said.
“What may be more effective is to just scrap the Olympic committee controlling sports altogether and create a new council that would encourage private sports clubs.”
Meanwhile, players at the pitch in Benghazi are content to drill on the arid field they call home, hoping to secure state or private funding to compete in a tournament in Dubai this winter.
“We’re very happy to be back on the pitch – it’s good to take your mind off the fighting,” said Benghazi resident Mohammed el-Huni, 29, who fought in some of the early battles of Libya's uprising.
“War is very confusing, but the discipline from rugby helped us to push on despite injury and the death of our friends. After fighting Qaddafi, we’re ready for anything.”