Libya’s national team headed for home on their charter plane on Sunday, basking in the glory of improbable qualification to next year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Their jet set off on a 10-hour journey from Ndola on Zambia’s Copperbelt to Tunisia, after which they plan to cross the border home and embark on a victory tour of Libya's embattled capital Tripoli. The side will be feted as heroes after completing a remarkable campaign unbeaten, setting off huge celebrations across a country still mired in conflict.

Libya’s 0-0 draw away against Zambia in Chingola was not enough to win their group, but it was good enough to see them finish in one of the two best runner-up berths. The Libyans had been aware of their potential to slip through into the 16-team field for next year’s tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, with their Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta cognisant that a draw might be enough, provided they could hold out against an attacking Zambia side on home soil.

There were some hair-raising moments for the Libya defence, but goalkeeper Samir Aboud and central defender Ali Salama in particular put in heroic performances that ensured a goalless stalemate that left the side on 12 points, one behind their hosts. But it was not yet mathematically certain that Libya would go through when their match at the Nchanga Stadium concluded, even though they wasted no time beginning their celebrations.

Paqueta looked almost bewildered by the achievement at the end of the game, while the hero of the hour, veteran goalkeeper Aboud, stood serenely to the side of his team-mates who were feverishly hugging each other in congratulations. “It is unbelievable what these players have done, even if we didn’t play so well today,” the much-travelled Paqueta said after the game in which the hosts rattled the woodwork twice. “We believed in our mission, and we have gone through a lot together.”

Aboud, who at 39 was making an unlikely return to a much revamped line-up, called qualification a win for “all the Libyan people, not only the team” before adding emotionally: “We have gone through a lot, but we have stayed true to our job and this victory is for all of us.”

A hard road ends in joy
Libya had high ambitions when they started the qualifying campaign last June, hiring the former Saudi Arabia coach on a four-year contract. “I had seen this Libyan team play on television before, and so I was intrigued by them,” said Paqueta. "When they proposed a contract with me, I made a huge plan of work, not only for the national side but also the junior teams and to help the club structures. The Libyans liked it, and so I signed."

His tenure started successfully with a draw away in Mozambique in the first of the Group D qualifiers and then a home win last October over Zambia. “But they were not easy games. The match in Mozambique came in the middle of Ramadan and the players were fasting. They were physically weak because of it,” Paqueta explained. “Against Zambia, our team doctor had a heart attack and died in the hotel the night before the match. He was very popular with the players.”

Shortly before their next game at the end of March came the start of the country’s revolution. It meant the game against the Comoros Islands had to go ahead in neutral Mali but the Libyans still won comfortably in Bamako. By then, their domestic league had stopped and organised football ground to halt. It had taken a matter of weeks for the situation to change entirely.

We believed in our mission, and we have gone through a lot together.

Libya coach Marcos Paqueta at the end of the Zambia match

By June, the conflict left the team in ruins, and Paqueta had only players from the capital Tripoli to choose from for the return game, away in the Comoros. It ended 1-1 draw after a late goal by the hosts. By the time the qualifiers resumed in September for the penultimate group game, the situation was even more fluid and the ‘home’ match against Mozambique moved to Cairo. But Libya won to keep alive their seemingly improbable hopes, and then completed an unbeaten campaign by drawing in Chingola on Saturday.

“We have had a big challenge, but I told my players we need to focus on the football first,” said a proud Paqueta. "We don’t have to always mix the problems of the country with football, and to their credit they have kept concentrating on the task ahead.

Now the coach will turn his attention to preparing for the Cup of Nations finals. He is seeking to find more players of Libyan descent in Europe to strengthen the side and wants to give more home-based youngsters an opportunity. He is hoping to fix several training camps to keep his players competitive. It will be only the third time Libya are represented at the Cup of Nations but, whatever result they achieve, they have already far exceeded expectations. The hero Aboud summed up the warm feelings in the team by describing the qualification simply as “a miracle.”