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Monday, August 22, 2011

Rebel advances stop Libyan soccer team in its tracks

Coach Marco Paqueta about to throw the towel into the ring (Source: Marco Paqueta)

By James M. Dorsey

With NATO-backed rebels launching their final push to capture the Libyan capital of Tripoli, the country’s national team is proving vulnerable to the conflict that is tearing its country apart.

Barely two months after four members of the squad defected to the rebels, the team’s ability to travel to Tunisia and from there to elsewhere in Africa for African Nation Cup qualifiers has been blocked with rebels having cut off the road they used until now to exit from the Libyan capital.

Libya is scheduled to play Mozambique in the Malian capital of Bamako on September 3 but is unlikely to make it out of Tripoli.

Libya’s expected inability to compete has prompted the national team’s coach, Marco Paqueta, to consider resigning. Tweeting over the weekend, Mr. Paqueta said he was on the verge of quitting in the coming days.

"It is increasingly difficult to give continuity to my work with the Libya team. I think this time next week we will have a conclusion," Mr. Paqueta tweeted.

Mr. Paqueta, who signed a four-year contract with Libya a year ago, has been operating from Brazil since the revolt erupted earlier this year. He flies to Tunisia to meet up with his players who have had two played two African Cup qualifiers against the Comoros islands since the rebellion started. Libya won both matches.

To continue playing international matches despite the suspension of the domestic league because of the fighting, Libyan soccer teams have given up the right to play a home leg in knockout ties opting instead for a single game on their opponent’s home ground or in a neutral venue. The loss of the home advantage coupled with their country’s crisis has meant that no Libyan club has made it past the African Champions League and African Confederation Cup preliminaries.

Libyan professional soccer has been suspended since mass anti-government protests erupted in February and evolved into an armed rebellion in March in demand of an end to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s 41-year rule.

Libya has so far resisted withdrawing as host of the 2013 African Nations Cup finals. Algeria has joined South Africa in lobbying to replace Libya on the assumption that the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will move the tournament away from Libya because of the civil strife racking the North African country.

CAF is eager to have the Libyan situation resolved rather earlier than later to avoid having to scramble to move the games at the last minute as it had to with the African Youth Championships earlier this year.

A group of 17 leading Libyan soccer figures defected in June to the rebels in their country. The defectors include national team goalkeeper, Juma Gtat, three other national team members, and the coach of Tripoli’s top club al-Ahli, Adel bin Issa. Al Ahli is owned by Mr. Qaddafi’s mercurial, soccer playing son, Al Saadi Al Qaddafi.

The defections constituted a symbolic blow to Mr. Qaddafi. All the more so because it is only a few months ago that Al Ahli Tripoli fans cheered Saadi as he toured Tripoli’s Green Square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters, who chanted “God, Libya and Muammar only.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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