Libyan football fans everywhere will be glued to their screens on 3 June when the national team takes on Togo in their opening African Zone qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. And they will be desperate for a positive result as their side aim to secure a maiden appearance at world football’s showpiece event.
A surprisingly strong showing at the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nation at the turn of the year allowed Libya to climb to 46th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – the highest position in the team’s history. That in turn has led to a belief in some quarters that the Mediterranean Knights will very soon shed their status as the only North African nation never to have competed at a World Cup finals.
With the Libyan championship at a standstill, more than 70 per cent of our players are based abroad, which means that friendly matches are essential.
Libya impressed at the 2012 Cup of Nations despite their first-round exit, most notably with a 2-1 win over West African powers Senegal, their first victory in the tournament outside their own country. Their other results were a 2-2 draw against Zambia and a narrow 1-0 defeat by co-hosts Equatorial Guinea. This was not enough to take the Libyans beyond the first round, however, and it was Equatorial Guinea and eventual champions Zambia who progressed.
Libya’s performances at the 2012 Cup of Nations are all the more impressive considering the delicate situation in the country since the revolution of February 2011, which brought an end to the Gaddafi regime and led to all football activity in the country being suspended.
Defying the oddsAt the beginning of the month Libya went to Egypt for a training camp, during which they played several friendly matches against local sides and the national team, to whom they lost 4-0. From Egypt the Mediterranean Knights travelled to Tunisia, where they recorded a dominant 2-0 win over Rwanda thanks to goals from Khalifa Qereira and Mohamed El Mughrby. They then rounded off their warm-up schedule with a 1-0 victory over Chad, Walid Sebaeie providing the winner.
Abdelhafid Rabish, who took over from Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta in March, emphasised the importance of his side’s recent friendly matches. “The suspension of the league and all the local competitions has made our preparations even more difficult, but the training camp in Egypt has allowed us to improve our physical condition,” said Rabish. “The matches in Tunisia enabled the professional players to join up with us. With the Libyan championship at a standstill, more than 70 per cent of our players are based abroad, which means that friendly matches are essential.”
Libya’s friendly against Rwanda gave Manchester City’s Ahmad Benali his first run-out with the national team, and his debut was nothing if not impressive. Fans are also looking forward to welcoming back Eamon Zayed, who helped Persepolis reach the last 16 of the 2012 AFC Champions League. Zayad scored five times in the competition and finished second in the scoring charts.
The African Zone qualifying draw for the 2014 finals in Brazil 2014 put Libya in Group I, alongside Congo DR, Cameroon and Togo. For security reasons, their second match, against Cameroon on 10 June, will be played behind closed doors in the Tunisian city of Sfax.
The group will no doubt remind Libyan fans of the final round of preliminaries for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, when their team was drawn in Group A with Cameroon, Togo, Angola and Zambia. Libya finished bottom on that occasion, their only points coming courtesy of a 3-3 draw with Togo and a 1-1 stalemate against Angola.
So, can the Mediterranean Knights harness the current positive feeling and make history, despite the political situation off the pitch? Will the Arab Spring bring them luck? The answer to those questions will become clearer on 3 June.