Through death, defection & destruction - the true story of war-torn Libya's miraculous qualification for 2012 Africa Cup of Nations

This is the tale of how the Mediterranean Knights overcame huge adversity to secure their right to compete at the continental tournament for the first time since 2006

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By Rami Ayari

Of all the remarkable stories in football this year, few come close to matching the extraordinary qualification of Libya to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). 

For a team that was almost torn apart by civil war - with their captain in exile due to his support of Colonel Gaddafi's regime, and a number of teammates defecting to fight militarily for the 'rebels' - Libya's presence at Equatorial Guinea and Gabon will be nothing short of miraculous.

So miraculous that the shock absence of regular Afcon challengers Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon from the January finals pales into comparison when compared to Libya's participation.

When the February 17 uprising began in Benghazi, Libya were tied for second place in Group C alongside Mozambique, while Zambia occupied first place. Their next fixture was scheduled for March 28, but by that time the Nato bombing campaign targeting Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was well underway, and the Confederation for African Football (Caf) no longer considered Tripoli safe enough to host matches.

The game was moved to Bamako, Mali, where 20,000 locals cheered Marcos Paqueta’s side to a resounding 3-0 victory over Comoros, chanting “Gaddafi, Gaddafi!” after each goal and jubilantly raising posters of the now-deceased colonel. With full points secured, then-captain Tarik al Taib thanked the Malians profusely and audaciously claimed that, although team members from Benghazi weren’t able to participate, the "whole team is for Muammar Gaddafi".

The truth turned out to be far more complex, and events in the ensuing months provided tangible proof that Al Taib was mistaken in his hasty assessment. Libya’s civil war intensified, claiming thousands of lives with it, and footballers who had attempted to remain neutral began defecting to the opposition.

Two weeks after their 1-1 draw against Comoros in Mitsamiouli in early June, reports emerged that Juma Gtat, the country’s top goalkeeper, and three unnamed members of the national team had defected to the rebel-controlled town of Jadu in the Nafusa mountains. This was considered the first of many major propaganda blows to Gaddafi.

Al Taib reacted by calling the rebels “rats and dogs”, a comment which would later cement his on-going and likely permanent exile from the national team. On the other hand, players such as Walid Alkatrouchi, Ahmed Al Soughir, and others left their team’s training camp in Tunisia and began fighting on the western frontline.

The player decided to take up arms after visiting a childhood friend who had lost an arm in the fighting, and having also witnessed the horrible state of wounded rebels and civilians. Furthermore, Alkatrouchi detailed how fellow fighters managed to convince him that the best thing he could do for his country would be to help Libya qualify for the 2012 Afcon.

“You would never find me here playing football, but it was my colleagues and my friends on the line that told me ‘this is your future, you must go there. This is also like a war for you. This is a duty that you must do and go to play. After that you can come back,'” he added.

Football in Tripoli | Libyans are pleased to have qualified for the 2012 Afcon

Two weeks after their 1-1 draw against Comoros in Mitsamiouli in early June, reports emerged that Juma Gtat, the country’s top goalkeeper, and three unnamed members of the national team had defected to the rebel-controlled town of Jadu in the Nafusa mountains. This was considered the first of many major propaganda blows to Gaddafi.

Al Taib reacted by calling the rebels “rats and dogs”, a comment which would later cement his on-going and likely permanent exile from the national team. On the other hand, players such as Walid Alkatrouchi, Ahmed Al Soughir, and others left their team’s training camp in Tunisia and began fighting on the western frontline.

The player decided to take up arms after visiting a childhood friend who had lost an arm in the fighting, and having also witnessed the horrible state of wounded rebels and civilians. Furthermore, Alkatrouchi detailed how fellow fighters managed to convince him that the best thing he could do for his country would be to help Libya qualify for the 2012 Afcon.

“You would never find me here playing football, but it was my colleagues and my friends on the line that told me ‘this is your future, you must go there. This is also like a war for you. This is a duty that you must do and go to play. After that you can come back,'” he added.

All the while, the Libyans were, amazingly, still on course to qualify for their first Afcon since 2006 despite a war raging both within the team and across the country. Tripoli fell to the opposition on August 21, imbuing the already important September 3 match against Mozambique with additional significance.

The game was held in Cairo, behind closed doors for security reasons, and the team wearing the red, green, black, and white colours of the pre-Gaddafi flag defeated the southern Africans 1-0 after observing their original national anthem. The victory prompted rapturous celebrations across much of the divided nation and set up a final showdown against Zambia in Chingola that would determine who would make it to Afcon 2012.

While they didn’t obtain the win they needed to automatically qualify, their 0-0 draw against the Chipolopolo on October 8 proved just enough for them to deservedly snatch a spot as one of the best second-place teams. The Libyans learned their fate when one of their coaches burst into the locker room after the game to reveal that Nigeria had conceded a late equaliser against Guinea, instilling a sense of euphoria and pride that the players won’t soon forget.

With that, a miserable chapter of Gaddafi-era football came closer to being resoundingly shut. An era in which players could only be referred to by their jersey numbers in the Libyan press so as not to compete for the national spotlight with the former leader.

In this same era, one of the colonel’s sons, Al Saadi, treated the Libyan Football Federation as a personal plaything and used his money and influence to represent the 'Greens' at international level on 18 occasions despite a readily apparent lack of talent and discipline.

Before Libyans can truly move on, mysteries of the past must be put to rest. Al Saadi, who fled to Niger in early September and is on Interpol’s 'most-wanted' list, is now under investigation for his potential involvement in the unsolved murder of former midfielder and coach Bachir Al Ryani.

While that and other atrocities require further scrutiny, Libyans are thankful that, come January, they will be represented at the 2012 Afcon. And this time, their freshly nicknamed 'Knights of the Mediterranean' will be able to dedicate their goals to their countless martyrs, instead of Gaddafi.