For 24 hours in March last year, the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax became a Libyan town. Sfax, known for its exquisite fish dishes and syrupy desserts, played host to a mouthwatering Group E Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifying tie between Libya and South Africa.
The Mediterrean Knights were backed by a 15 000-strong crowd who made the trip in the hope that Libya would book the last remaining ticket to Egypt on 24 March. The Libyan General Authority For Youth and Sports flew 3 000 of those supporters to the game, the rest used sheer resourcefulness to finance the more than 1 000km trip.
“Some supporters sold their mobile phones or belongings to make the trip,” recounts Souhail Khmira, a Tunisian journalist. Other reports emerged of supporters sleeping in parks to get a glimpse of the few national heroes capable of uniting a country ravaged by foreign intervention.
It has been six long years since Libya last played at home. In the far corner of Taïeb Mhiri Stadium in Sfax, across from the VIP tribune, the “home” fans hung a banner that read: “Save a country that has nothing left but football. God save Libya.”
Speaking to news channel BBC Sport prior to the match, Libyan forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi underlined the importance of a Libyan victory: “Making it to Egypt is very important, not just for the players but for the country, too. The country deserves to be happy again, to qualify. Libyans deserve to be happy.”
The Knights played well, attacking with pace and leaving nothing in the tank. But two beautiful strokes from South African forward Percy Tau’s left and right feet killed Libyan hope. After the match, Libya’s most iconic player and national team coach at the time, Fawzi Al-Issawi, apologised to his compatriots for the failure, acknowledging it was time to rebuild once again.
Television pundits did not blame the players. How could they? During the qualifying campaign, the Libyan squad travelled more than 30 000km, played under four coaches and two federation presidents, and most importantly were denied the opportunity to play on home soil.
Gaddafi’s political obstacles
The ails of Libyan football are, and always have been, political. It’s common knowledge that former president Muammar Gaddafi did not understand or particularly like football. The final chapter of his infamous The Green Book, titled “Sport, Horsemanship and the Stage”, outlines Gaddafi’s disdain for spectator sports.
“The thousands who crowd stadiums to view, applaud and laugh are foolish people who have failed to carry out the activity themselves. They line up lethargically in the stands of the sports grounds, and applaud those heroes who wrest from them the initiative, dominate the field and control the sport and, in so doing, exploit the facilities that the masses provide.”
Professional sport was banned during the first years of his reign and it only returned under certain conditions. According to legend, in his inaugural address during the opening ceremony of the 1982 Afcon, Gaddafi finished his speech curtly: “Now, I leave you with your stupid game.”
Time and time again, the defining regime of modern Libya placed obstacles on the road to development for Libyan football. Cynical voices accuse the Gaddafi family of stoking inter-club tensions by favouring certain clubs or regions over others.
One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, was addicted to football and tried his best to reason with his father. In an interview with The New York Times newspaper, he admitted that his father did not understand the impact football could have on the youth of Libya.
”Always, my father looks at things in a political way. They aren’t political … Every day I’m with him, I explain to him the mentality of the fans, how it [football] helps young people, how it’s like breath for youth.”
In 1989, Libya forfeited a Fifa World Cup qualifier, allegedly because Gaddafi was incensed with the visiting Algeria side, whose country had housed political refugees from Libya. Dozens of casualties followed during the subsequent riots that demonstrated how much Libyans cared about football, in contrast to the head of state who relegated it to basic economics.
Post-conflict hope dashed
Gaddafi was deposed in 2011. Throughout and following that eight-month period of chaos, the Libyan national team was refused the right to play at home. As national spirit soared, they qualified for the 2012 Afcon for only the third time in their history. It seemed like a turning point for Libyan football.
Even when the North African nation lost the right to host the 2013 Afcon, they optimistically, and – perhaps naively – planned to host the 2017 edition instead. The Confederation of African Football and Fifa sent a delegation to inspect the security situation on the ground. Both deemed the country safe enough to host football matches.
Football returned to Libya in the form of a historic 2014 World Cup qualifying double-header. The Knights would start the week by first hosting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and then Togo.
“I think our preparation is going very well. Expectations are very high, we feel this is the first time we are close to qualifying for the World Cup,” said Anwar al-Tashani, then president of the Libyan Football Federation.
Deputy Prime Minister Awad Ibrahim Elbarasi said: “The security situation is exaggerated from reality. We’re actually in a much better position than many of our neighbours.”
Elbarasi also announced that his government had pledged $314 million to construct 11 new stadiums for the 2017 Afcon, a signal to the world and to investors that Libya was a safe place. However, a Claude Le Roy-lead Congolese side did not feel at ease during preparations. Speaking to a French radio station, Le Roy revealed that his players were scared after having heard “automatic fire” and “loud bangs” during training.
“Our federation sent a letter to Fifa protesting the decision to host the game here in Libya,” Le Roy added.
The match finished goalless and without incident. The following day, 31 people were killed in Benghazi during clashes between ex-rebels and protesters. Thousands of kilometres away in Lomé, Togo’s captain Alaixys Romao and striker Jonathan Ayité were already making plans to skip their upcoming match in Libya.
Romao was at the forefront of a Togolese push to play at a neutral venue. But they were promised that the match would be moved from Benghazi to Tripoli, where the DRC had played a week earlier.
“I’m getting ready to go to France because we are not being taken seriously,” Romao wrote on Twitter.
“Benghazi or Tripoli, what’s the difference?” he asked, adding, “I’ll only change my mind if Fifa administrators make the decision to accompany us.”
Then Fifa president Sepp Blatter did not show up and neither did Romao. Libya won 2-0 at the 11th of June Stadium. The atmosphere was festive, but it would be the last time they contested a match on home turf.
Blessing amid the curse
Since the ban was reinstated, Libya have failed to qualify for three Afcons and one World Cup tournaments. Going on the talent of the current generation, it’s difficult to believe the squad would not have qualified for at least one of those Afcons had they played at home.
The stop-start nature of football in Libya has robbed the league of its best players. It came to a standstill in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 before General Khalifa Haftar mounted an offensive on Tripoli.
According to Mouayed Skander, a television journalist who covers football, many clubs are “suffering heavy material losses” and “a number of professional players are seriously thinking of signing outside of Libya due to the tense and foggy situation in the country”.
In many ways, there’s a mini blessing in that curse. Never have there been more Libyan players playing abroad than now. Muaid Ellafi is in Algeria at USM Alger. High-flying winger Hamdou Elhouni is an asset for Esperance in Tunisia. A few Libyans are playing in the United States and some are even cutting their teeth in Europe, like Ahmad Benali in Italy.
Another prominent journalist in Libya, Morad Dkhili, says this is “an important indicator that the level will be better in the 2021 Afcon qualifiers and 2022 World Cup qualifiers”.
Prior to Haftar’s offensive, Fifa president Gianni Infantino had spoken positively about removing the Libyan home ban. A Fifa delegation organised a three-day visit to assess the security situation but the chances of Libya hosting a match in the near future are grim.
Futsal to the rescue
As is the case everywhere, when structures break down, football finds a way to survive in informal spaces. In Libya, the street footballer reigns supreme. Legends like Ahmed Rakaba and “Tall” Hassan Ronaldinho are as popular as professional footballers.
“In Libya, we have clubs, but everyone plays in the cages [indoor football]. Our parents tell us ‘You won’t make it with football’,” said Ehab Abushkewa, a former futsal international.
“In futsal, we were champions of Africa on more than one occasion and we played in World Cups. In Libya, we prefer to play five-a-side in a cage than on a full pitch. We are a people that truly loves football. I have travelled to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and I can assure you that the players you find in Libya are more talented.”
Libyan players’ technique and artistry is well-respected in North Africa, a region that produces some of the most technical players in world football. For a country of less than seven million people, torn to shreds by terrorism, militarism and interventionism, the Libyan national team has done well to compete in the international arena. Once the political factors favour football development, there can be no doubt that Libya will finally perform to the level of its gifted players.