Rescheduled matches, suspended championship: The chaos in Libya has not spared football but the supporters of Tripoli’s two flagship clubs have a rare chance to relive their passion for the era of a double derby, although it takes place 1000 km from the capital and without them.
The CAF Confederation Cup quarter-final draw resulted in a 100% Tripolitan clash between the two most successful clubs in Libyan football, Al-Ahly Tripoli and Al-Ittihad.
Since Tripoli’s stadium has not been approved, it is that of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city about 1000 km away, that was designated to host this confrontation. The first leg took place on Sunday and the return is scheduled for April 24.
Benghazi is the bastion of the eastern camp and its strongman, Khalifa Haftar, whose forces attempted to militarily conquer Tripoli before being defeated in the summer of 2020 after fierce fighting.
The match was played behind closed doors and few supporters, even the most motivated, would have dared to make the trip to Benghazi, amid renewed tensions between rival camps for several weeks now.
Against bad luck, dozens of supporters took to the Place des Martyrs, a sprawling esplanade in the heart of the capital, on Sunday night to watch the match broadcast on a giant screen, which ended in a 0-0 draw.
“The Libyans are missing such matches in their territory, especially in an important continental competition,” said Mohammed Al Mamdoud, an al-Ittihad supporter.
“Seeing the audience of the two teams is a sign that the situation is improving,” said Fayçal Hachad, another Al-Ittihad fan who crossed Martyrs Square, where former dictator Muammar Gaddafi liked to deliver his speeches before it was blown away by the winds of the Arab Spring in 2011.
However, this 18-year-old Tripolitan red and white scarf around his neck would have preferred “supporting the club from the stands”.
While the coastal road connecting the two cities was indeed reopened last year, as well as air links, moving from one city to the other still raises concerns due to a climate of insecurity and fuels frustration among fans of both teams.
“I would have liked to be in the stadium, but I would be afraid to go to Benghazi because there are still divisions in the country. It is easier for me to go to Tunisia than to Benghazi,” laments Mohamed Mokhtar, 25 , a supporter of al-Ahly.
The aborted military offensive, carried out by Marshal Haftar’s forces against the capital between April 2019 and June 2020, sharpened divisions between Tripolitania and the eastern region of Cyrenaica.
End of embargo
In December, ongoing disputes led to the indefinite postponement of the presidential and parliamentary elections, which the international community had pinned great hopes on finally stabilizing the sprawling nation of North Africa. After missing this election deadline, Libya has had two rival prime ministers since February.
Football has long suffered from the political chaos that has continued since 2011. Between the start of the second Libyan civil war in 2014 and 2021, the country’s clubs and the national team played their international matches abroad, mainly at home, Tunisian and Egyptian neighbors. This long football embargo was lifted in March 2021.
The results are yet to be seen: the national team, which has just been entrusted to former French international Corentin Martins, has never won the African Cup of Nations (CAN), has never participated in a final stage of the World Cup and is ranked 117th in the world. Only a few rare outbursts by Al-Ahly and Al-Ittihad in the Continental Cups managed to occasionally take Libyan football out of anonymity.
For the rest of the tournament, Mohamed Mokhtar, the supporter of Al-Ahly, remains hopeful to see his favorite club qualify for the semi-finals and play at home. For a first continental title?