Libyans can play without pressure
Libyan footballers and Australian cricketers have as much in common as a red card and a diamond necklace but the Mediterranean Knights may enter Equatorial Guinea with the words of Aussie all-rounder Keith Miller echoing in their ears.
"Pressure, I'll tell you what pressure is," he said. "Pressure is a Messerschmitt [aircraft] up your a***. Playing cricket is not."
Miller is considered of the greatest players to ever wear a Baggy Green. He was also a fighter-pilot in the Second World War, which meant he knew there was more to life than playing games. So do the Libyan team. Revolution has ripped their country apart and even though regime change is underway, normal life has been severely interrupted. The Libyan league has been suspended since fighting began and has been in disarray. Against the backdrop of chaos, the team's qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations is as close to a fairytale as the nation has had. For the first time, football represents hope after spending years grovelling in darkness and, as far as some are concerned, flirting with evil. Much like Iraq, Libya's football was held in the hands of the country's rulers as a political tool. Colonel Muammar Gadaffi's son Mohamed ran the national football federation while Saadi Gaddafi played for Al Ahly Tripoli.
During one of Saadi's matches against rivals Al Ahly Benghazi, an incident occurred to demonstrate the extremes of the ruling party's stranglehold over the game. Benghazi decided to abandon the match at half-time because of what they considered dodgy refereeing and made it all the way to the airport before Saadi caught up with them and threatened them. They returned and lost 3-0 but also lost their training ground after the Colonel Gaddafi ordered it be burnt down as punishment. Saadi also captained the national team and under him they fell to 186th in the FIFA World Rankings. When the war broke out in February, football took the side of the status quo. Former captain Tariq Tayib, supported the Colonel, told the world that the team did also after beating Comores in a qualification match in March and called the rebels "rats and dogs". But 17 influential people in Libyan football thought otherwise. One of them was Abdel bin Issa, the coach of Al Ahly Tripoli, who declared that he would like to see Gaddafi dead. Two others were goalkeeper Juma Gtat and midfielder Walid el Kahatroushi. Both the players fought on the frontline, motivated to do so by friends who had suffered injuries and wanted to contribute to the country's greatest cause. Gaddafi was toppled in August, a week before the team were due to play in Mozambique in a fixture that had been moved to Cairo. The lack of order in the country's footballing systems means that their Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta, who has not been paid since the war began, had to buy his own plane ticket to Cairo and somehow bring the team back together.
Mohamed Gaddafi was impressed by the Brazilian's plan for Libyan football and Paqueta said he accepted the job because he "did not know about the country" and its politics. He has changed his tune and now speaks like a revolutionary himself. The match was significant in more ways than just the 1-0 result in Libya's favour. The team donned a new national kit – white shirts with the black, white and green striped flag with a crescent moon - instead of the Gaddafi green they had previously worn. They also sang a new national anthem, real signs that the man who was once their leader no longer had control over them.
Only one more step had to be taken to qualify and it was against Zambia, which was a must-win game if Libya were to avoid relying on other results. Their journey to the game was far from perfect and they were held to a goalless draw in Chingola which required them to wait and see if Guinea could stave off Nigeria. That match also ended in a draw, clearing the path for Libya to reach the finals. That day the squad forgot their troubles. They sang a chant with the words "the blood of the dead will not be spilt in vain". Their new captain Samir Aboud dedicated their qualification to "all Libyans and our revolution". The Libyan people took to the streets, celebrating an unlikely success in a time of turmoil. Since then, the team have had more time to concentrate on football. They held a warm-up camp in the United Arab Emirates, where they lost a training match 1-0 to Ivory Coast. Most of their players are still based at home and have not had enough match time but that is of little concern to Paqueta who believes that their driving force will be to achieve something for the people at home. The upheaval of the last 11 months has also not stopped the squad from enjoying some of the finer things in life, like food. Libya have taken their own chef with them to the tournament armed with 25 kilograms of couscous to cook traditional meals throughout the event. For the next three weeks, the only fighting the team will do will be on the football field as they aim to topple the likes of tournament favourites Zambia and Senegal. Likening sport to war is a comparison made all too often. Most of the time, it is crass and inconsiderate because like members of Libya's national team will testify, real war is a much more serious matter.
Even though Paqueta said the team is now "not only playing for football success but for a new government and a new country", in truth, it probably won't matter how far Libya progress in the continental showpiece. Like Miller said, the country has real pressure on its mind. But, the further they get, the more pride they will be able to take back with them.
Kahatroushi put it best before they had qualified: "At least to bring them some happiness after all the sadness the Libyan people have been through."