As a nation, Libya has suffered more than most over the last 18 months. Civil war has left its mark and a return to normality is still unthinkable in many areas.
Yet football is restoring hope among the population of the north African country. The national side has been largely responsible for this optimism, having grown together during the conflict to record some excellent results. Libya are looking to build on the euphoria created and there are signs of further change ahead in the coming months.
One of the key architects of the footballing transformation is Antoine Hey, who has been technical director of the Libyan Football Association since 2010. The 43-year-old German, now in his fifth role in African football, spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his time with the Mediterranean Knights.
FIFA.com: You have been stationed in Lesotho, Liberia, Kenya, Gambia and now Libya in the last eight years. Would it be correct to call you a footballing globetrotter?
Antoine Hey: No, I don't think so. A globetrotter is a negative term to describe someone who's just passing through. I take my job very seriously. This isn't a world tour for me, but part of my life and passion for football. I'm trying to gain as broad an experience as possible in my coaching career.
You've been technical director at the Libyan FA since 2010. What does that involve and how would you summarise the difficult period the country went through?
Libya experienced a tough time, but despite the problems we tried to keep going in all competitions, like World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, as well as youth games. We made a commitment to the football family as a whole and we wanted to fulfil that, even in the most trying of times. That was our task in 2011.
During the civil war, how was it possible to continue working?
Sport has always been independent and political developments were not decisive. I wanted to help those people who I feel I've a duty to. Of course, the easiest thing would have been to pack my bags and go, but that wouldn't have been right. I knew that at the end of the civil war football could have a profound impact in resolving social conflicts. The situation is a lot calmer now and we're currently trying to change certain structures. We will reform grassroots football and elect new leadership within the organisation. Libyan football is going through a rebuilding phase, which brings exciting possibilities with it.
What role does football play in Libya?
It's the country's favourite sport. Libya has a very young, sport-loving population. There’s no doubt that’s a big plus. The importance we give to football and how big its effect can be, especially after such a conflict, comes across in the talks we have with people and organisations who want to help us. We want to make the most of that.
I knew that at the end of the civil war football could have a profound impact in resolving social conflicts.
During the conflict, the national team defied all expectations to put in some superb performances. Can you explain why?
Our side was indeed very successful in that period. They played a huge role in creating a wonderful sense of nationality and community. In Germany we experienced for ourselves the power football can have in 1954 and 2006. Fortunately, we were also chosen as hosts for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017. We want to use that to project a new image of Libya to the outside world.
In the September FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Libya reached their highest ever position of 36th. Despite falling 17 places in October, what do you think are the reasons behind the improvement?
Several factors came together. Nobody could have guessed the national team would play so well or that results would go our way. There was an unbelievable euphoria after the end of the civil war. Our players hadn’t played a league game or trained regularly for over a year, but they gave absolutely everything on the pitch, it was sheer determination. They wanted to make a small contribution to changing Libya’s image and to give the people a reason to celebrate together again, irrespective of their political opinions prior to the conflict. The team did a fantastic job. It gives me great pleasure to be part of it and to see that anything is possible when you have the right attitude towards your task or profession.
Libya’s greatest success to date was as runners-up at the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations. What can be achieved in the near future?
First and foremost we’re doing everything we can to play a game at home, in Libya, again. That’s still not possible. It would be fantastic for the country and footballing family when we’re allowed to host a game once more. But of course, the security situation needs to be right first. For now, we’re about to implement a complete re-structuring of the Football Association. After that we’ll work towards developing a youth program in conjunction with the German FA. Training coaches, promoting youth football and finding talented youngsters are further important points. On top of that, we’re currently establishing the foundations for hosting the Africa Cup of Nations 2017 along with the ministry of sport. Stadiums still have to be built, the infrastructure needs to be there and we need a Local Organising Committee. We’re hoping the German FA will be able to help us.
Libya is the only north African country never to have qualified for a FIFA World Cup™. Would reaching Brazil 2014 be a historic achievement?
The historic achievement was qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations at a time when the country was dealing with completely different issues. That can never be taken away from the team. Of course, it would be great to qualify for the World Cup. If we do, it would be an incredible accomplishment.