A constantly changing Libya team defied the bombs and bullets of a civil war to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations in a tale that must be tempting Hollywood scriptwriters.
Forcing a 0-0 final-round draw in Zambia, the north Africans scraped through as the best group runners-up and have been drawn in Group A with the same country, co-hosts Equatorial Guinea and Senegal.
Most pundits fancy Zambia and Senegal to fill the top two places and advance to the quarter-finals, but dare Libya be written off after a remarkable passage born of courage and determination?
They began a six-match qualifying campaign under Brazilian coach Manuel Paqueta in Mozambique as representatives of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi regime and wearing green because their leader loved that color, but by the time they faced the Mozambique again at “home” in Cairo, the shirts included the red, black and green of the new rulers, with the Greens nickname haven given way to the Mediterranean Knights, while they sang a different national anthem.
To Rafie El Lafi from Tunisian side Club Africain went the honor of scoring the first goal for the new Libya as the 42-year Qaddafi stranglehold on the oil-rich country collapsed.
It gave Libya a 1-0 victory amid the eerie atmosphere of a stadium kept empty for security reasons and thrilled Paqueta, as he had to rely on Benghazi players because those from Tripoli were trapped inside the capital.
In the dying days of Qaddafi’s rule, players from “rebel” capital Benghazi were shunned — now Libyans danced in the streets of Tripoli celebrating a win that kept the qualification dream on track.
As the dictator fled Tripoli, the door also slammed shut on some stars, such as former captain Tarek El Tayab, who did not disguise his loyalties, calling dead rebels “rats and dogs.”
Paqueta, who worked extensively in the Middle East before succeeding Faouzi Benzarti after the Tunisian failed to make the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations cut, swells with pride when discussing his squad.
“I never considered abandoning them, even during the darkest days of the civil war. I believe in them as footballers and I cherish the friendship that has grown between us,” he said. “What they achieved is remarkable given that domestic football ground to a halt last March, leaving us with short training camps in Tunisia before matches. To hold Zambia under such circumstances was truly awesome.”
Although the lowest Group A seeds, Libya will fancy their chances in the tournament opener against Equatorial Guinea, while accepting that a Senegal side packed with star strikers may prove too strong.
So the Jan. 25 middle fixture with Zambia looms large if ambitions of making the knockout stage are to be realized by a team 39-year-old goalkeeper Samir Aboud captains.
Most of the squad will be much younger and they will be experiencing the Cup of Nations for the first time as Libya strive to improve on a poor 2006 showing, when they headed home early after gathering a solitary point.