BBC News

Libyan football enters post-Gaddafi era

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Cairo

image captionThe match was played in an almost empty stadium

Libya's national football team has won an Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match against Mozambique in Cairo, its first major game since rebel forces seized Tripoli. The game against Mozambique was relocated to the Egyptian capital Cairo because of the ongoing fighting in Libya.

This was no ordinary match.

As he sat outside the Petrosport stadium in Cairo, Humam Abu Rawi, a football fan from Tripoli, struggled to put his feelings into words.

"I am very glad - I don't know how to say this in English, but we finish our revolution."

Like many of the fans who had gathered at the stadium before the game, Humam was wearing the red, black and green colours of the new flag.

"In Libya, they all love football," he told me. "If we win and if we get to play in the finals, I think almost all Libyans would forget everything about the past and focus on the games for this is our passion, our love - football."

For years, football in Libya was dominated by the Gaddafi family. Col Gaddafi's son, Saadi, himself a footballer, used to run the Libyan Football Federation and was once captain of the national team.

"Sadly football, just like everything else in Libya, suffered setbacks under Gaddafi," another fan, Omar Hadad from Benghazi, said. He told me how Col Gaddafi at one point had not allowed television presenters to announce the names of the players.

"He didn't want to see success or expressions of creativity from Libyans or see anyone ahead of him."

When Saadi Gaddafi became head of the Libyan Football Federation, he said, things changed. The team became a potent symbol of the Gaddafi government.

But the game in Cairo has ushered in a new era for Libyan football.

'New start'

There was new kit, in white, and the team for the first time played under the pre-Gaddafi flag, in red, green and black, which has been adopted by the rebels.

image captionSupporters were wearing the colours of the new flag

The players came from across Libya, from the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and from Tripoli.

One of them, Mohammed Ghanad, who used to play for Al Ahly Tripoli, said that after 42 years of Gaddafi it was time for a new start, and that he was happy for Libya.

His was a view shared by many of the players, but one or two of them seemed reluctant to talk about politics and the changes in Libya.

One of Libya's best footballers was conspicuously absent - Tariq Ibrahim al-Tayib, who in July referred to dead rebels as dogs and rats.

He is not welcome, one player told me.

For all the hopes and emotion riding on this game, just a handful of people actually got to watch it in person.

For security reasons, the Cairo match was held behind closed doors. And the Libyans faced a side from Mozambique - a country that has not recognised Libya's National Transitional Council.

But victory, when it came, was sweet. The Libyans beat Mozambique one-nil, and the small group of Libyan fans in the almost empty stadium went wild.

One of them, Bashir, was barely able to contain his emotion.

"This is a moment of truth," he said. "Now we see real Libya! We are expecting Libya and culture and football and everything - people who are getting their freedom with their hands and their blood."

Libyan football has some way to go before it can put the political divisions behind it, but for now fans of Libya around the world are celebrating.