Tripoli, Libya is a strange place to be right now. I moved here almost three months ago and have never lived in a place closer to the spirit of the old Wild West. In the years following the revolution that saw Muammar Ghaddafi removed from power the country has slipped into a lawless, failing state. Rival militias, formed during the revolution, compete, often along tribal lines, for power and influence and in the absence of any real security forces act as a kind of cowboy police and army. Kidnappings, assassinations and bombings are common throughout the country and the interim government is disabled by deep divisions between the Muslim Brotherhood and their more liberal counterparts. In short, it’s a disaster and there don’t seem to be any immediate solutions.
But out of the darkest places hope can spring forth and that hope is often carried on the shoulders of sport. South Africa saw it in the wake of apartheid in 1995 when the Rugby World Cup united a nation in support of its sporting heroes. More recently the Iraqi national football team, in the midst of a decade long crisis of war, terrorism and social upheaval won the AFC Asian cup against all odds in 2007. Commentators noted the sense of unity and celebration on the streets of Baghdad in the weeks following the win. It’s fair to say Libya could use some of that right now.
The African Nations Championship (CHAN) doesn’t exactly hit the radar of the average European football fan. The better known African Cup of Nations is widely recognised, as much for the excitement and spectacle of the biennial tournament as it is from taking some of Europe’s best players out of action for an international tournament in the middle of the football season. CHAN, being both a recent invention – the first tournament was held in 2009 – and competed for by national teams entirely comprised of players playing domestic football in their home country, has less of a reputation. Watch this space, though, because the competition taking place in South Africa right now could prove to be significant even beyond the sporting world.
Libya did not go into the tournament as one of the favourites. Although some of the less traditionally successful African teams may have entered with delight at the sense of a playing field levelled by the absence of big stars like Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Alex Song, Libya would be justified in arguing that such an advantage didn’t help them as much as it did other nations. With the domestic league here having been, at various times, suspended, scrapped and only played behind closed doors, the ability to only pick players currently playing in Libya isn’t a huge help to them at the moment. Add to that the very real danger of even being a footballer in this country since the coach and one of the players from the famous Al-Ahly club were both shot last year and you get the feeling that Libya should have been going into the Championship merely to make up the numbers.
Nobody told the Libyan team. After an opening 2-0 win against Ethiopia they managed a 1-1 draw with Ghana, one of the giants of African football. The end of that game even saw Libya take the upper hand and only a mixture of misfortune, bad refereeing decisions and poor finishing prevented them from taking all 3 points. This set up the possibility of qualification for the knockout stages if they could manage a draw against Congo. Libya was hooked. I bumped into a Libyan colleague on the day of the game and before I’d even greeted him he asked me “Did you see the news?” I had assumed he was talking about the ongoing clashes in Sabha, in the South of the country. Not at all. Violence and chaos have become the norm in Libya – my colleague’s question was related to the upcoming game and he wasn’t alone. Libya qualified with a last minute equalising goal that will see them play Gabon in Sunday’s quarter final.
This Libya team is undoubtedly not the best, most technical or even the physically strongest team at the tournament. What they are is determined, hard working and disciplined under former Spain head coach Javier Clemente who took charge of the national team in September last year and has set about work on putting together a side that this country can be proud of in difficult times. Libya may not win the whole championship but even getting this far is an achievement and if they do make it to the semi finals, or even better, then people will start to believe that a miracle might happen. That would be massive for a country gripped by a violent struggle for power amongst the wreckage of a revolution whose story is not yet complete. Keep an eye on it, because Libya could really do with a miracle right now.