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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.

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.”