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Healing the pain of a nation

With the 2012 edition of the African Cup of Nations underway, Matt Youngs looks at whether this tournament could provide a platform for a country ravaged by civil conflict to give its people a source of inspiration for the long road ahead.

Libya lost 1-0 against co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in the opening match of the finals at the Estadio De Bata on Saturday, but with many of the powerhouses of African football missing from this year's tournament, there's a strong feeling that this tournament still represents an opportunity for The Mediterranean Knights to make an impact.

Qualification was far from easy for Libya with the civil war that gripped the country in 2011 and overthrowing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi causing many players and staff to fear for their safety and that of their families. During those turbulent months survival became the priority, football a distant after-thought.

With fierce fighting gripping the country, the Libyan league was halted in March and some players abandoned football for the frontlines.

Led by Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta, the Libyans were forced to play several home qualifiers in neutral venues, including Mali and Egypt.

Lacking match fitness and despite significant security concerns and seismic shifts in the political situation within the country, the Libyan national team remarkably achieved qualification with a 0-0 draw against Zambia in their final group game in October - prompting scenes of wild celebration and outpourings of emotion at the final whistle from players and fans alike.

Third appearance

Libya are traditionally considered to fall outside the bracket of top African sides and 2012 is only their third appearance at the African Cup of Nations finals (once as hosts).

But an excellent run of form during qualification has formed part of a sustained improvement over several years that has seen them rise to a record high FIFA ranking of 58 (currently 63).

Spurred on by events of the last 18 months it is hard to ignore the overwhelmingly positive impact that a fairytale journey through the competition could have on the country as a whole.

There remains much work still to be done in the rebuilding process as Libya adjusts to life after the Gaddafi regime and there are many hurdles that the Libyan people are yet to overcome.

A good showing by their football team in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon over the next month could provide much needed motivation; fostering a sense of pride in what is principally a nation reborn.

With the much fancied Senegalese and qualification rivals Zambia also to contend with and an opening game defeat, the odds are stacked against Libya progressing from Group A - but as a nation they have already overcome so much.

Now the Libyan players have the potential to give their country a huge lift in one of those rare occasions where the impact of a football match has the capacity to transcend the realm of sport in a positive way.


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