Libya’s coming home

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Damiano Benzoni

Football’s coming home: after two years of absence caused by the civil war that brought down the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi, this week Libya will be back to play official football matches on home soil. Libya, which was allowed by FIFA to host matches again in March, will play its first post-war home internationals on June 7th and 14th, in two qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. Halfway through Group I, Libya is still unbeaten and is second in the table, one point behind Cameroon. In the first match, the Libyans will take on DR Congo at the June 11th Stadium in Tripoli, while a week later they will face Togo in the stadium of Benina, previously entitled to the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavéz and now devoted to the memory of the Martyrs of February, the victims of the Libyan civil war.

Libya had played its last home international on February 9th, 2011, beating Benin 3-2 in Tripoli. A fortnight later the February 17th revolt would be the spark of the civil war and of the fall of the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi, killed in Sirte the following October. During the revolt, on February 28th, Libya had to shift a home match against the Comoros to the Malian capital Bamako. In that occasion captain Tariq Ibrahim al-Tayib declared that the whole team sided with al-Gaddafi; he also mentioned that several players were missing, as they were not able – or not willing – to leave Benghazi, occupied by opposition forces.

Even though forced to play abroad, in Cairo (Egypt), Sfax and Tunis (Tunisia), Libya managed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations 2012 – the third in its history – and to remain unbeaten in the first three matches of the World Cup qualifiers. Great results, taking into account the fact that the national league, stopped halfway through the 2010/2011 season due to the civil war, has not restarted yet. The return of international football to Libya started on April 5th, when al-Nasr was allowed by the CAF to host a CAF Confederations Cup match against the Moroccan Forces Armées Royales team from Rabat. The national team played its first fixture after 32 months in Tripoli, beating Uganda 3-0 in a friendly match.

Interviewed by Reuters, the Libyan Football Federation president Anwar al-Tashani declared the country has been preparing for two weeks in order to host the two matches, even though the country still faces a condition of lawlessness. Al-Tashani promised that all conditions required by FIFA will be fulfilled. Security forces will be present and two military checkpoints will be set up in front of the stadium.

The two matches will be the first tests for Libya in order to host the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, for which the minister of Sports Abdussalam Guaila promised to build eleven new stadiums. Libya was initially selected to host the 2013 edition, but security concerns forced a switch with South Africa, originally designated as the 2017 host. It will be Libya’s second time as an African Cup of Nations host after the 1982 edition, when the national team lost the final on penalties against Ghana. Hosting the tournament after the civil war and the demise of the 42-year regime of al-Gaddafi could be an important starting point for the country. This, at least, is the dream of the deputy Prime Minister Awad Ibrahim Elbarasi, who declared to Reuters: “Just like Nelson Mandela unified South Africa, we hope to unify Libya under this cup”.

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