In League with Gaddafi: This folly wouldn’t make top five of Irish football fiascos
TV review: Brian Kerr looks back on his match against terrorist-friendly Libya in 1989
The Irish teams in Tripoli in 1989
“It may not have been the brightest thing anyone ever did in football,” offers Brian Kerr early during In League with Gaddafi (RTÉ Two, Monday) a brisk and still bewildered history of how a team of Irish footballers went to play against Libya in Benghazi in 1989.
Perhaps it wasn’t the shrewdest move to legitimise a repressive state that sponsored international terrorism. But given last week’s news of the FAI’s €55 million debts and its possible demise, this folly would barely make the top five list of Irish football fiascos.
How innocent the League of Ireland was in its decision to accept the friendly invitation is an open question, though. Were they ignorant that the then Libyan leader Col Muammar Gadafy supplied the Provisional IRA with huge numbers of arms? Or were they just as mercenary as the Haughey government, which, we are reminded, wasn’t going to let ethics get in the way of lucrative beef exports?
The 1980s, the programme assures us, was a time of decay and desperation in Ireland. Moral action was fine for those who could afford it.
Kevin Brannigan’s documentary, fizzing with pop-culture nostalgia, presents the whole farrago as a combination of mutual grift and naivety. Even the team, hurriedly assembled from idle, cash-strapped players from Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic, was not the National team the Libyans were expecting.
Instead, Kerr’s team neither confirmed or denied if they were part of Jackie’s Army (which sounds like something Gadafy would supply with munitions). Who was scamming who?
Most of the double-jobbing players – some of whom we now happily meet again – anticipated a kind of holiday: “Going somewhere nice, “one of them reminisces: “bit of sunshine.”
For the most part, Brannigan’s documentary seems as slow to make any troubling connections, too dizzied by the flitter of archive clips, shrinking aspect ratios and pop soundtrack to tease out the darker implications.
The reliable Eamon McCann, himself a previous visitor to Libya, points out that Gadafy’s arms prolonged the IRA’s campaign of violence “without any doubt”. One of the players, Joe Lawless, a lifelong butcher, is better informed about international politics because the meat for export had to be Halal: “It was very important because they were giving us our jobs,” he says.
With a similar spirit, the team arrive to Libya, noting that the roads are better than their own, marvelling at the ubiquitous Gadafy propaganda, and almost immediately running foul of the authorities. “I duly was able to negotiate the lads’ release,” remembers Kerr of players incarcerated for drinking.
The game cannot hope match the spectacle of Gadafy himself, of course, who enters on a white horse, after several hours of military parade, amid a hail of celebratory gunfire. (There is nothing quite as amusing, nor as telling, as McCann’s comparisons of Gadafy to Haughey; two political cynics, fond of high-quality garments, with some mutual regard.)
The final score, following a game played on such coarse material it gave the players carpet burns, was a 1-1 draw. Thus, no one came out of it too well, or too disgraced, to be vividly remembered.
Recalling the belated delivery of the famous game fee, a suitcase stuffed with dinar, as he watches a game today, Kerr briefly becomes distracted by an attempt at the goal: “What a save!” he says, “What a save.” Wasn’t it just?