ABU DHABI // Members of the national football team of Libya, a nation divided and ravaged by civil war, are hoping to bring some joy to their stricken country in this month's African Cup of Nations.
The continental minnows slipped to a 1-0 defeat last night at Al Nahyan Stadium courtesy of a header from Salomon Kalou, the Ivory Coast forward, but they will take heart from their ability to compete against one of Africa's traditional dominant forces.
Ivory Coast will arrive in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea later this week as one of the favourites to reach the final on February 12, but Libya have developed a reputation of late for grinding out results, albeit against weaker opposition. In Fifa-recognised matches, the Libyans are undefeated since a 1-0 loss to Benin in January 2010.
Last year, Marcos Paqueta, their Brazilian coach who took charge in July 2010, was forced to watch as his team was ripped apart by the civil war. Some members of the team, including former captain Tariq Tayib, supported Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime, while three others took up arms and joined the rebels.
When Qaddafi was toppled last autumn, the country remained in a state of civil war, yet Paqueta brought the team back together to push for qualification for this month's tournament. A 1-0 victory over Mozambique, played in Cairo, was followed up with a scoreless draw against Zambia in Chingola. It was enough to see Libya qualify for the continental showpiece for the first time since 2006.
Paqueta, having witnessed his squad's solidarity, is now looking to help them get the necessary results against Equatorial Guinea, Zambia and Senegal to progress to the competition's knock-out stage.
"It's an amazing time," Paqueta said after last night. "They don't play only for the national team, they play for the people who have endured difficult lives. They put everything in their hearts on the field and I feel the players are ready to start. We want to get out of the group stage, that's the goal. Here they showed attitude and courage and if they show that again we can qualify. They play with a good attitude, a strong team, and they fight for each other."
Mohamed El Mounir left Libya to join Serbian side FK Jagodina shortly after the war broke out, but he said now everyone is back and fighting for the same objective, the spirit within the team is there for all to see. "When you see how we arrived, it has been very hard," the defender said. "When we had the war in our country, we didn't train. We played two games and we qualified, so for us just being at the cup is a success."
El Mounir, who was an unused substitute last night, said that while expectations are low going into the tournament, motivation levels within the squad are high.
"It is important to make something for our country because for the past year we have had nothing to make us happy," said El Mounir. "Players had brothers die, their families die, so when we win it is for all of Libya, not just for us players.
"Like you see here, we had all the players from Benghazi, Tripoli, all over Libya; we play like we are brothers who have played for four or five years together even though some of the players are playing for the national team for the first time. But, as you see, everybody loves each other and this is good."
Although Paqueta's team rarely looked like scoring against Ivory Coast, they showed enough spirit and determination to hold their own for much of the match. Didier Drogba came closest for the Elephants in the first half when he struck the post, while Yaya Toure was kept quiet by a clustered Libyan midfield.
Samir Abod was on hand to turn a Didier Ya Konan header around the post early in the second half, but the Libyan goalkeeper could do nothing when Kalou rose highest to direct his header into Abod's far right corner on the hour.
"We played against a strong team with professional players," Paqueta said. "Our players have never played before in a game like this, so it was very important for us. Now I just hope they play like that at the beginning of the competition."
Libya will feature in the African Cup of Nations opening match on Saturday against Equatorial Guinea in Group A. Ivory Coast begin their Group B campaign the next day against Sudan.