Libya will take on co-host Equatorial Guinea in the opening match of Africa’s continental championship on Saturday, marking the culmination of an unlikely 12-month campaign to reach the event amid political turmoil and civil war.
While the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi raged at home, Libya’s national team went undefeated in qualifying despite having to play all their matches in other countries — and with some players having joined the rebel forces on the front line.
The team became a symbol of the revolution when it donned new uniforms featuring the red, black and green colors of the country’s new flag in a 1-0 qualifying win over Mozambique, and is hoping to provide a similar sense of pride to people back home by doing well in the tournament.
“This is much more important than just some football cup,” said midfielder Walid al-Katroushi, who fought on the rebel front line against the Gadhafi regime. “We came here because we want to do something good for Libya — we are not here to enjoy ourselves.”
The team arrived in Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday with the players looked tired but relaxed as they checked into a brand new hotel in the coastal city of Bata. A handful of Equatorial Guinea soldiers and police were there as security.
Al-Katroushi wore a stoney expression on his face as he arrived, mirroring a quiet determination that was spread among the rest of the squad as well.
Al-Katroushi said that was partly due to the responsibility the team carried ahead of the opening match.
“The Libyan people understand football — they love the game,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s a long time since the country had something to smile and be happy about and that’s up to us now.”
Al-Katroushi left a football training camp in Tunisia in April to join the rebel forces, a decision that has given him a different perspective on things like football.
“Of course, everybody would be afraid of dying at a young age, but we had to do something to make a change in the government,” said the 25-year-old midfielder, who plays for Libyan club Etihad. “I’m proud of what we did, but that’s not why we fought. We did it for our country.”
The team’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta told the AP that the players used the political crisis as extra motivation.
“The players have talent but they didn’t believe in this talent before,” he said. “We had to change that mentality to give them courage and attitude. The rebellion seemed to make them more determined, more focused, more able to play above themselves.”
Libya has a good chance to advance from Group A, having been drawn with No. 151-ranked Equatorial Guinea, an injury-hit Zambia side and the strongest opposition on paper, Senegal. The top two teams progress to the quarterfinals.
Equatorial Guinea’s players were given a different kind of motivation for its debut match at the African Cup after the president’s son announced he was putting up a $1 million win bonus for the team to share, plus $20,000 per goal against Libya.
Despite the financial incentive and home advantage, the lowly ranked team — currently behind minnows Benin and Samoa in FIFA’s standings — should give Libya few problems.
The co-host’s preparations were further hit when experienced French coach Henri Michel resigned just a few weeks before the tournament, leaving Brazilian replacement Gilson Paulo with little time to tune his squad.
“If we win the first game that will be an added boost, but we must go step by step,” said Paqueta. “It would be a dream for the players to do well and go far in the tournament – it would be a miracle to be champion.”
Libya wrapped up its preparations with a respectable 1-0 loss to tournament favorite Ivory Coast in a friendly in Abu Dhabi on Monday.
Ivorian defender Kolo Toure praised the Libyans after the match.
“They are a good team and very well organized,” the experienced Manchester City player said.
“They don’t have a lot of stars but they have pride. We have a lot of respect for them. This team (Libya) is really, really strong.”