On June 7th the Libyan national team played its first World Cup qualification match in their national stadium since 2008. Following the revolution and resultant civil war of 2011, all of the Mediterranean Knights’ international matches were played on neutral territory from February 9th 2011 until May 13th this year when a friendly against Mauritania took place in the capital, Tripoli. The Libyans won that game 2-0 and followed that with a 3-0 victory in another friendly on home soil against the visiting Ugandans on June 1st.
The qualifier, which was the first competitive fixture played in Tripoli since FIFA lifted its ban on the use of Libyan stadiums back in April, came against DR Congo and resulted in a goalless draw. The following week Libya defeated Togo 2-0 in a game switched from Benghazi to Tripoli after an outbreak of violence put the game in jeopardy. The win put them in the driving seat in African qualifying Group I and their quest to reach Brazil next summer.
During their two year enforced exile from Libya, the national squad played its nominated home internationals in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Mali and played two invitational games in the United Arab Emirates against Ivory Coast and Belarus. They also appeared in the 2012 African Cup of Nations finals jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon where they failed to progress from the group stage despite just one defeat and a win over the much-fancied Senegal. Libya had originally been chosen to stage the 2013 renewal of the AFCON finals but the tournament was relocated to South Africa during the violent overthrow of the former regime and dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Since the end of hostilities, the country has again been awarded the opportunity to host Africa’s showpiece tournament in 2017 when South Africa were originally scheduled to hold the event. The new Libyan government announced proposals to resume the construction of 11 new stadiums in April. The budget for these venues, originally planned for the aborted 2013 championships, is expected to exceed $300 million. The main venue to be built will be a 60,000 capacity stadium in Tripoli. There will also be brand new stadia in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and seat of the 2011 uprising against Colonel Gaddafi, and Misrata, the coastal city that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the conflict.
The Libyan national squad, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a rebuilding process. During the revolution several players defected from the pro-Gaddafi Libyan Football Federation to join the rebels on the front line fighting against government forces. 28-year-old midfielder Walid El-Kahatroushi was one such player. In an interview he gave to CNN after the toppling of Gaddafi, he said, “Some people came to me and told me one of my dear friends was in hospital and lost his arm. In that moment I decided to leave the camp and join the front line. When I was there I was just forgetting about football because the most important thing then is how to secure your life and secure the life of your friends”. El-Kahatroushi has now returned to the Libyan squad with other rebels such as goalkeepers, Guma Mousa and Juma Gtat. They will line up alongside former supporters of the Gaddafi regime with the spirit of reconciliation at the forefront of the Libyan Federation’s plans for building towards 2017 and beyond.
Football was very much a favourite interest of the Gaddafi family before the revolution, particularly as Saadi Gaddafi, the leader’s third-eldest son and former national team captain, had served as President of the Libyan Football Federation following unsuccessful spells as a player in Italy’s Serie A with Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria. When Interpol issued a “Red Notice” for Saadi Gaddafi in September 2011 the allegations against him were of ‘misappropriating properties through force and armed intimidation when he headed the Libyan Football Federation’.
Libya will complete the second stage of their World Cup 2014 qualification campaign on September 6th with a trip to Cameroon for the crucial winner-takes-all decider. Should they emerge as winners of Group I this would set up a two-legged play-off against one of the other nine group winners in October and November. Progression from those play-offs would see Libya become one of Africa’s five representatives in next summer’s finals in Brazil and realise an incredible rehabilitation of the national team just two years after the country was ripped apart by civil war.