Libya need fight for Nations Cup progress

By Bara TaufikBBC Sport
Libya's Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta
Libya's Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta oversaw one of the most impressive qualification campaigns for an Africa Cup of Nations

Libya were surprise qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations, reaching the finals despite the political fighting at home, but is this the start of a bright future or a mere false dawn?

The Mediterranean Knights' previous two appearances in the competition came in 1982, when they automatically qualified as the hosts and then reached the final, and in 2006.

This time around, Marcos Paqueta's side surprised everyone when securing their passage despite political turmoil - eventually qualifying after a heroic defensive display in Zambia where a goalless draw was enough to take Libya through as a best runner-up.

But even though qualification came against the backdrop of revolution, the campaign was still marred by criticism - both of some players' questioned loyalty to the new Libyan Republic as well as the coach's tactics and lack of media activity.

One recent Tripoli friendly had to be abandoned after a group of fans invaded the pitch, demanding that certain players be excluded from the team following alleged comments made during the revolution.

Tariq al-Tayeb, a national team talisman throughout the nineties until his retirement in 2008, had already been ostracised for making scathing comments about the freedom fighters - and has been made a persona non grata in Libyan football.

Several current players have also been accused of retaining loyalty towards the late Muammar Gaddafi and his regime - even if many fans have called for unity behind the team in such an important period.

At the other end of the scale, some supporters simply believe football should not be a current priority, stating that reconstruction of the war-torn nation should be the Transitional Council's main focus.

Libyan footballers
The squad says it is proud to represent a new Libya on the pitch

Unbeaten at Tripoli's 11th June Stadium in over ten years of competitive competition, Libya have dramatically improved since the turn of the millennium but their away form has failed to impress and this could be a problem in Bata during the finals.

Qualification was a massive achievement in spite of all the hardship the team has had to overcome, but the hard work starts now for Paqueta and his team.

Nonetheless, the identification of new players, especially those of Libyan descent who could be nationalised, has reaped benefits for the Brazilian.

Djamal Abdallah, whose father is Chadian, made his debut in 2010 and has been a fixture in the side ever since, his quality in the holding role in midfield earning him much praise.

Libya reached their highest ever Fifa ranking of 58th in April 2011 and currently stand 63rd, above the likes of Poland, Costa Rica and Austria.

This has been fantastic progress for a nation of just six million, especially with the aforementioned domestic problems in mind.

But if the relative successes of recent times are to be maintained, improvements need to be made in both Libya's football infrastructure and the development of young players, which has been a key area in the last decade.

For this month's finals, the Mediterranean Knights will have to rely on the old guard with 39-year-old skipper Samir Aboud, Ahmed Sa'ad, Younes al Shibani and Ahmed Zuway all having been retained since the 2006 Nations Cup.

Paqueta's well-organised unit normally consists of two holding midfielders providing the platform for the front four to attack, but profligacy has been a big problem and the lack of a recognised goalscorer could undermine the team.

With tough opposition in the form of Zambia and Senegal to be faced in Group A, defence will be key if Libya are to upset the odds and progress beyond the group stage.

However, a nation that has always been passionate about its football will be proud to represent a free state, with a new flag and new national anthem, in a major competition - whatever the outcome.