It wasn't pretty or glamorous but Libya defied the circumstances which prevented them from hosting the African Nations Championship (CHAN) to win the competition in South Africa. The Mediterranean Knights claimed their first major continental trophy via a penalty shootout, setting off celebrations in their home country that were said to have done more for unifying the nation than all the activity of the past three years.
The fan who proudly declared the team had "managed to do what the politicians spectacularly failed to" was probably simplifying matters in the euphoria of the moment, but his point conveys something about the importance of this victory to Libya. Theirs is a nation that has spent the past few years in civil war and its aftermath, so finally registering a win means much more than we can imagine, especially considering they have players who fought on the front line.
- Libya win African Nations Championship
When Libya began this CHAN campaign, their team relations manager, Tarek Benissa, said they were aiming for a final-four finish and to develop young players. They did not want to create too much expectation because they saw their group as one of the more difficult pools. It included African heavyweights Ghana and two countries, Congo and Ethiopia, whose local players were shining at clubs like AC Leopards and Saint George.
"We have set ourselves a semifinal place as a target and should we achieve that, it will have been a successful tournament. Should we make it out of our group, I would like to think a semifinal is possible," Benissa said. "Everyone in Libya understands that we are testing the waters and building for the future. There's no pressure at all -- just a chance for them to enjoy the tournament."
Libya were proved correct in their assessments of the strength of their first-round opposition, who they had tough encounters against. They qualified for the knockouts by virtue of just one win -- over an Ethiopian side that disappointed despite all their promise -- while they drew against Ghana and a spirited Congo.
But they could take heart from their early showings because they were the only side to put a goal past Ghana goalkeeper Stephen Adams and they showed signs of the "bounceback ability" that eventually took them to victory. Needing two goals in the last 15 minutes against Congo, Libya found them both. They innovated against a tiring defence to qualify for the quarterfinals.
From there, Libya's journey was laboured. They shared spoils with Gabon in a match that went into extra time and was decided on penalties. The same happened in Zimbabwe and against Ghana in the final. Libya's nerve in the shootouts always held out. Specifically, goalkeeper Muhammad Nashnoush showed the big-match temperament that could have caught the eyes of overseas clubs with valiant efforts between the posts.
Nashnoush denied Zimbabwe in the shootout before scoring the decisive spot kick himself to send Libya into the final. There, he saved the first two penalties to ensure Libya made history and demonstrated progress as a young side under a new coach.
Coach Javier Clemente took over in September last year and his influence is starting to show, especially in Libya's strong defensive tactics and their heart. "I have put a lot of passion in this team," Clemente said. "And they have played with enthusiasm and pride. They fully deserved this trophy. This tournament really gave a good platform to up-and-coming young players. Most young players really got a massive foundation from this tournament."
But he also recognises that the win will go much further than footballing legacy and that it will be part of the fabric of a nation. "This win is good for Libyan people, for the growth of the sport and social stability," he said. "I hope winning this trophy has been massive for Libya and its people."
Judging by the reactions in the streets it has been exactly that. Libyan football fans want this to mark the start of something bigger for them; something that could see them crowned African champions in the continent's main event -- the African Nations Cup (ANC) -- in the future. The next edition of that tournament is in Morocco next year. Qualification will begin in a few months' time.
Further ahead, in 2017, Libya are due to stage the tournament themselves. After swapping hosting rights with South Africa for the 2013 ANC and 2014 CHAN, they will hope their country is deemed safe enough to welcome the continent in three years' time so nothing can prevent them from taking centre stage then.