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Libyans celebrate soccer win under new flag

- Associated Press - Saturday, September 3, 2011

TRIPOLI, LIBYA (AP) - Hundreds of joyful Libyans cheered and fired off celebratory gunshots in Tripoli's main square Saturday after the national soccer team won in its first match since rebels toppled Moammar Gadhafi's regime and forced the longtime leader into hiding.

The Libyan team, wearing the colors of the rebel flag and playing in neighboring Egypt, won its African Cup of Nations qualifying match against Mozambique 1-0.

"First there was our great victory over despotism and now in soccer," said Abdel-Wahab Shoush, 52, who brought his young son to be among the crowds gathered in Tripoli's Martyr's Square to watch the match on a giant screen.

The celebrations for the soccer victory blended seamlessly into those marking the fall of the old regime and the holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and helped restore a sense of normalcy to the capital after months of war.

After weeks of deserted streets and shuttered stores, the seaside boulevard of Tripoli was clogged with motorists honking horns and waving flags, giving the city the look of any other capital after a sports victory _ albeit with substantially more gunfire.

Tracer bullets arced into the sky over Martyrs' Square _ until last month the scene of Gadhafi's giant rallies _ while families munched on popcorn and children played in a pair of inflated bouncy castles.

Most of the team's players now come from Benghazi, Libya's largest city in the east and one of the first places to shake itself free from Gadhafi's control back in February.

The game was played in Egypt and organized by the Egyptian Football Federation with the approval of the country's interim military rulers, said Abdel-Moneim Mostafa, the technical director of the Confederation of African Football. There was no audience for security reasons.

With one of Gadhafi's sons having aspirations to play professional soccer, the sport was highly politicized in the country and closely controlled by the government.

"Before anything to do with football involved al-Saadi, Mohammed and Moammar _ they controlled everything," said Salah al-Sweihly, 36, a rebel from Misrata, referring to Gadhafi and two of his sons.

"Now we are free from the Gadhafis," he said.

Rabie el-Lafi scored in the 30th minute with a shot into the far right corner of the net after a cross from the right from teammate Mohammed al-Mughrabi.

The win gives Libya six points and second place in its group after Zambia to qualify for the Africa's Cup competition, which will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea from Jan. 21 to Feb. 12.

Wearing a pendant of the rebel flag, 23-year-old Mourad Mounir saw the game as a justification for the seven-month struggle to overthrow the old regime.

"It was special in every way," he said. "It is a victory for the martyrs, not just a soccer game."

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