In taking on Rwanda in the second round of the African qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ in the coming days, Libya are hoping to score the kind of success that can help pull the war-torn country back together and silence the weapons that have destroyed its stadiums and forced the national team into exile.
“We’re a nation that lives and breathes football, but so many things have changed,” said 22-year-old midfielder Mohammed Al Tabal, discussing the current state of Libyan football with FIFA.com. “Our national team is not as competitive as it used to be because of the instability in Libya.”
In response to the ongoing conflict, Al Tabal and his team-mates have been forced to prepare for and play their games abroad, with Friday’s 'home' leg against the Rwandans taking place in the Tunisian city of Sousse.
Pondering the situation, Al Tabal commented: “It’s had an impact on the national team in general. It’s not easy to go about our preparations in another country and spend three months away from our families. It’s all had a negative effect in terms of results.
“If things were as they should be, we’d be number one in Africa. The national league came to a halt a couple of years ago, which has undermined the ability of the players to compete. Whatever the case may be, I’m convinced there are better days ahead for us, and I’m sure the Libya team will be a force to be reckoned with again.”
Looking ahead to the Rwanda tie, in which Al Tabal and his colleagues can expect the support of the entire nation, he said: “We’ve been preparing for this match for months. We’ve played quite a few friendlies and competitive matches to give ourselves every chance against the Rwandans.
“The difference between us is that uniting our people means more to us than actually qualifying. We want to win so that the people of Libya can celebrate in the streets rather than kill each other. More than anything we want to make them smile again and that makes us even more determined to go and get a good result."
With Libya yet to grace the world finals, the current crop of players are hoping to kill two birds with one stone: book a place at Russia 2018 and help bring peace to the country, a double objective that prompted Al Tabal to say: “Football is the most popular sport in Libya and everyone plays it, whether it’s in the desert, on the beaches or in the streets.
“It’s the one thing that brings Libyan people together. With its values and ideals, football has a big role to play in people forging closer ties with each other. The first objective is to beat Rwanda and reach the group phase. After that we’ll be playing one match after another until the day every Libyan has been waiting for: the day we reach the World Cup for the first time. Some people think that’s an unrealistic goal, but there’s nothing that’s impossible in football.”
The Libyan Kaka
Currently playing his club football with Tripoli-based Al Ittihad, Al Tabal models his game on that of Brazilian star Kaka and bears so much of a resemblance to the former AC Milan idol, right down to his haircut, that he is even known as Mohammed 'Kaka' Al Tabal in tribute to him.
“When I was 11, I played for Al Ahli Tripoli,” he explained. “My neighbours and the coaches there wanted to change my name from Tabal to Kaka. I remember that AC Milan had just won the Italian title, with Kaka one of the main architects of that success. I looked like him, so people decided to start calling me Kaka.
“He’s won the lot on the pitch and I hope to become a great player like him. I hope one day to lead the Libya team out at the World Cup, just like Kaka did with Brazil. He even won the world title at Korea/Japan 2002.”
The day may well come when Al Tabal and his team-mates finally take Libya to the biggest stage of all, a day when he will hope to see his people united as one and cheering them on to success.