Libya’s national football team lost to Tunisia on Thursday but fans in the eastern city of Benghazi still had reason to cheer as international football returned to Libya after a seven-year hiatus.
International football had been banned in Libya for several years as the North African country was wracked by conflict.
Tunisia, nicknamed the Eagles of Carthage, won 5-2 in an Africa Cup of Nations qualification match played behind closed doors due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic at the Benina Martyrs Stadium, formerly known as Hugo Chavez Stadium under the regime of overthrown leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The loss means Libya cannot qualify for the next Africa Cup of Nations to be hosted in Cameroon in January 2022.
The Libyans opened the scoring in the 22nd minute but were quickly overtaken by the Tunisians’ fast-paced, pressing style, conceding three goals within 30 minutes of their opener.
A second goal early in the second half gave the Libyans some cause for hope, but that was dashed after Tunisia netted fourth and fifth goals towards the end of the game.
Even though the loss hurt, Libyan fans still celebrated the return of football to their home soil, with many turning up in droves to cafes to catch a glimpse of their heroes against their rivals and neighbours Tunisia.
Libya descended into chaos after Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, resulting in multiple forces vying for power.
The Libyan national football league was suspended in 2019 due to the deteriorating security situation.
Fighting only came to a halt last year and a formal ceasefire announced in October was followed by the establishment of a unity government led by interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.
The Libyan Premier League resumed play in January.
Ashraf Mazeg, a Libyan fan, said Thursday’s result was expected as the long period of suspension had meant Libyan-based players had limited recent game time.
“The loss was expected in this result due to the stoppage of the league and the players are not physically ready, but I hope the coach will choose better players – there are better players in Libya, but they were not picked,” Mazeg said.
Still, others said the defeat was a tough pill to swallow, irrespective of their players’ lack of recent match experience.
“The Tunisian team is strong, and they have strong clubs, like Espérance and Sfaxien, who compete in the African Champions League, but we did not expect the result to be like this. But this is the material the coach has, and this is what players he has,” said supporter Mahmoud al-Badri, who nevertheless expressed optimism about the team’s upcoming fixtures.
Regardless of the result, many claimed that the lifting of the ban on playing in Libya, which forced the national team to play most of its international games in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, was a victory in itself.
“It is a positive thing, which is to allow the play at the Benina Martyrs Stadium, and God willing, the next [match] will be better,” said fan Abdalla al-Shiekhi.