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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020

New documentary tells tale of how Brian Kerr led a team of Bohs and Pat's players to Gaddafi's Libya

In League with Gaddafi is on RTÉ One tonight at 9.35pm.

Players from Bohemians, Saint Pat's and Al-Ahly Benghazi ahead of kick-off.
Players from Bohemians, Saint Pat's and Al-Ahly Benghazi ahead of kick-off.

LONG BEFORE THE Irish government had beef with the FAI, they were exporting it to Libya. 

Tonight, a documentary from The42‘s Kevin Brannigan titled In League With Gaddafi 
looks back on Ireland’s entanglements with Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya in the 1980s, told through the fabulously strange prism of Brian Kerr leading an ersatz Irish team of players from Pat’s and Bohs to play a football game in front of around 60,000 people at the national stadium in Benghazi. 

In the ’80s, Ireland and Libya were drawn together by meat and munitions. 

On the former, Charles Haughey’s government secured a deal which saw the export of 100,000 cattle to Libya, which provided vital employment and the incongruity of Irish factories employing Muslim butchers to ensure cattle were slaughtered in the Halal manner. 

Gaddafi, meanwhile, felt “obliged” to support the IRA’s campaign in the north, and was shipping them what proved to be $40 million worth of weapons. 

Eamon McCann appears to give a bit more context on Gaddafi, who he once interviewed in a desert tent. While he was waiting for him to arrive for the interview, a member of his Revolutionary Guard approached to ask, “How is Leeson Street?”, saying he had spent a while studying at UCD. 

Gaddafi described Haughey as “his friend”, and, incredibly, could label certain parts of Ireland as strongholds for either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. 

The bulk of the contributions, however, come from Kerr and the players who travelled. It came at short notice in 1989, when the League of Ireland was approached by intermediaries with the offer to play a game in Benghazi. 

With Pat’s and Bohs dumped out of the FAI Cup and facing a battle to pay wages, they jumped at the chance to make up the shortfall in gate receipts. The Irish side travelled in the face of some political opposition here, and Kerr maintains they were not falling into a propaganda trap. 

Once they did land, however, it became increasingly clear to the players that they had been sold as the Irish national team that had played at the European Championships a year earlier. 

The film makes extensive use of the RTÉ archive, and the game itself happily survives thanks to a VHS tape found in Pat Fenlon’s attic.

The anecdotes are many and glorious, which includes the squad’s encounter with police after managing to find booze in a strictly dry country and a trip to what was said to be Gaddafi’s favourite restaurant in, eh, Benghazi zoo. 

The film is a great evocation of what life was like under Gaddafi – the roads in Benghazi were a lot better than they were in Ireland, according to Kerr – and also what life was like in Ireland in the 1980s, which one contributor calls “the decade of no hope.” 

It is ultimately, however, a testament of sport’s power to show us parts of history and the world we might otherwise be ignorant of, and how it can gift those who play it some bewildering, unforgettable experiences. 

In League with Gaddafi is on RTÉ One tonight at 9.35pm. 

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Gavin Cooney

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