Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughFor Libya - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough For Libya - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

For Libya

The 21st January sees Libya take on co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in the opening game of the 2012 African Cup of Nations. This time last year, Libya was a country under the dictatorship of Colonel Gaddafi, a stark contrast today from a side who arrive at this year’s competition donning shirts with the National Transitional Council flag of Libya on their chests. The last time Libya had success on the African continent’s biggest stage was as far back as 1982, where they came runner up to Ghana in a competition they hosted. Since then there has been a steady stream of disappointment for Libyan football fans, with the country often not evening entering the qualification stages in some years, due to political pressures and a lack of organization in the domestic professional game. This year, however, they arrive with not only an organised side under the leadership of Brazilian Marcos Paqueta, but with a fresh outlook on life. With undoubted support of the new government brought through the 2011 revolution, they have a footballing side which is representing the people of new Libya and with pride they will step out onto the field for the first time at a major competition as a new country.

Some who will feature in the competition’s opening game in Bata on Saturday night, featured in a completely different battle only months ago. Many of the 23 man squad who have been selected for the tournament were rebels in the fight for liberation and may not even had made it to this day to represent their country. In build up to the opening game, there is an aura of a fairy tale story in the makings, where the players explain they play for their people, their country and for the story they have been a part of. This competition is more than football for the players and for the people of Libya, it is a chance to give the Libyan people hope after an emotion filled struggle that has been the past twelve months in the North African country. Those lost and injured during the conflict are central to the thoughts and motivation for the side known as the Mediterranean Knights, who themselves have suffered causalities caused by war in preparation for the tournament.

Drawn in qualification Group C, along with Zambia, Mozambique and the Comoros Island, the Mediterranean Knights began their qualification for the 2012 tournament on 5th September 2010 away from home to Mozambique. After a well fought 0 – 0 draw, no one would have expected how the next year in Libyan football would have shaped up. Next up in the road to qualification was a home tie, under a backdrop of Gadaffi Tripoli, against Zambia where a single goal through Ahmed Saad Osman gave the Knights their first three points and a step towards Equatorial Guinea. By the time their third fixture in qualification was upon the side, full scale Civil War had erupted within Libya, forcing any remaining games to be held in a neutral venue. This stage in qualification not only took away well needed fan support, but also took several players away from the outfit, who chose to fight for the rebels across Libya. Despite such a difficult period emotionally and stretching their resources to breaking point, the Knights travelled to Mali for a “home” fixture against Comoros, where a 3 – 0 victory put the side in contention to qualify at the mid-way stage.

The return fixture against Comoros was scheduled right at the height of the Civil War in June and with such strains on the team’s resources it showed in a 0 -0 stalemate in the small settlement of Mitsamiouli. This was followed by an impressive 1 – 0 victory against Mozambique, in another “home” fixture held in rivals Egypt’s Petro Sport Stadium, with a goal through Rabee Allafi who would go on to score the first goal for Libya in the post-Gadaffi era. During this fixture, in a stance of rejection to the Gadaffi, the side turned out in an all-white kit of solidarity, under a new flag and with a new anthem. The Knights completed qualification with a 0 – 0 away draw to Zambia, in what was an unprecedented success for the nation, with an unbeaten qualification record. Libya finished second in Group C with twelve points, one point behind group winner Zambia, but qualified as best runner up in the competition, along with Sudan, after a process determined by highest points, goal difference and the number of goals scored. Libya had remarkably booked themselves a place in the tournament alongside Africa’s heavyweights, making it only the third time the country had qualified in their history.

The Knights had achieved the remarkable and the unexpected. What one has to view when assessing the achievements of Libya’s national football team, is not only in relation to the Civil War itself, but view how far the sport had progressed since the days of Gadaffi. Since the outbreak of the Civil War, tensions within the side mirrored those of the Libyan people. Persistent conflicts in interest between players made cohesion near impossible, with the side’s captain Tariq Taib openly declaring during the qualification period that the rebels were dogs and suggested the team gave full sport to the Gadaffi regime. Taib’s footballing career would end prematurely due to pressures from teammates and fans, and now has retired at only 34. Football in Libya was persistently viewed as a poison by Colonel Gadaffi, who feared the power of the football fan, especially concerning its ability to rally the masses. The capital of the new rebel government, Benghazi, suffered disastrously through this in 2005, where Gadaffi ordered the demolition of local side Al-Ahly Benghazi’s stadium after fans dressed a donkey in the shirt of Gadaffi’s son. Due to this the side disbanded for five years. The fact that the side has managed to grow from strength to strength is a statement of defiance to everything Gadaffi stood for and everything the country today wants to achieve.

All Libyan eyes turn to Bata on Saturday night, with hope in their hearts and pride. Although just turning out a side for this tournament was expected to be inconceivable, the Libya people have optimism ahead of their first fixture, much of which is put in the faith of star player Djamal Mahamat. Mahamat is one of few Libyan players that play outside of Libya and even more commendably for last year’s Europa League runners up SC Braga who sit third in the Portuguese Primiera Liga. Much of the squad ply their trade domestically in the Libyan Premier League, which also was affected greatly by the Libyan Civil War and was abandoned half-way through the 2010-2011 season and is still yet to get back on its feet. This is just another factor that seemingly inhibits Libyan football unsuccessfully.

The Libyan football story is one that deserves more plaudits than any other in the game’s modern history. The Gadaffi regime tarnished the domestic game and had ramifications for their attempts at international qualification. Gadaffi’s influence managed to destroy much of the beautiful game in Libya, highlighted by his third son Al-Saadi Gadaffi. Al-Saadi, a former footballer, had the Libyan game organized and arranged around him. Colonel Gadaffi introduced laws which forbade announcing any other Libyan footballer with the exception of Al-Saadi at stadiums, with the other players purely being announced as numbers. Security forces would clamp down on fans who even dared to shout abuse at the dictator’s son and referees were openly paid off to give decisions in his favour. After two laughable attempts to play professional football in Italy for Perguia and Udinese; deals which were clearly funded for by the Colonel and a publicity stunt, Al-Saadi has now an Interpol notice issued against him for his role in the Civil War.

Saturday brings a game of football for the Libyan people, for the sport, for the rebels, for hope and for those lost; against Gadaffi, repression and dictatorship. Libya will don the field as a side of heroes, who have achieved the impossible and have the chance to achieve even more remarkable feats. They don the field free of corruption, free of political pressures and get to do themselves, their sport and their country justice. All of this while the winner of the past three tournaments and rivals, Egypt, merely watch on television screens.

I think I speak for many here and give my sport for Libya from Saturday and throughout the competition. 

David P Harrison @DaveHarrison43