Published September 11, 2013
Each day brings fresh evidence of post-Qaddafi Libya’s collapse. Ports and oil fields are overrun, road networks and water supplies cut, and airports closed. The essential organs of Libya’s body-politic appear dysfunctional, and the day seems fast approaching when Libya’s vast land mass will fragment into composite parts of city states, tribal domains, and provincial realms that pre-date the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by Western powers after the First World War.
But despite a feckless central authority and the growing pressure of centrifugal forces, every barometer of public opinion shows that aspiration for a united Libya remains overwhelming. This can be measured in the ubiquity of Libya’s post-Qaddafi tricolour, the enthusiastic turnout at elections (62 percent of registered voters in the July 2012 elections) or the copious spread of clan networks spanning distances sometimes over a 1,000 kilometers apart. When Libyans talk of their homeland, they retain a mental map of the vast North African country.
The national pride is most visible in Libyan devotion to the national soccer team. The team’s performance is patchy. Some of its players are Libyan exiles who have spent so long abroad they speak little Arabic. But the team represents a national symbol which transcends its success rate. From the immigration officers at passport control to the youth playing table football outside an old Ottoman café in the center of Tripoli, the Libyans I met the day I arrived in June were excitedly discussing their first international competitive football match in three years. The ability to a field a national football team, they felt, was a critical milestone in their ability to revive their post-war nation state.
Many Libyans, as well as Western travelers, feel a disconnect to the empirically dire state of the country’s political health and the apparent improvements in their daily lives. Explosions, once commonplace, rarely puncture the nights. Checkpoints have disappeared from the city center. Guns, once commonplace, are largely hidden away. The civil aviation authorities defy Western government travel advisories. Ahead of the game, officials had considered suspending the match lest some armed group take advantage of the tens of thousands converging on the stadium to advertise their presence.
But the event passed without hitch. At the gates guards frisked fans, but seemed disappointed to recover no more than a carving knife. The most serious disturbance came from a fan who threw a water bottle at a Congolese player taking a corner kick. Military police rushed to the foot of the stands, and calmed people by throwing roses back at them. A scout band and girl guides paraded on the grounds. The match ended without a goal, but jubilant fans unfurled vast tricolors, and hundreds cheered from the roof of the VIP lounge, in which the prime minister, and the American and British ambassadors were sitting. It was almost possible to believe that Libya was normalizing.
The contrast with the old order could not have been starker. In Qaddafi’s Libya, football matches were deemed subversive and suppressed. They turned participants into passive spectators and protested the Great Leader’s Green Book: “Sporting clubs are rapacious social instruments. The grandstands of public athletic fields are actually constructed to obstruct access to the fields.” Large crowds liable to spill out of control were an obvious cause of concern.
Although Qaddafi never attended the game, towards the end of his 42-year reign he began to relent—perhaps under pressure from his avid, football-playing sons—and permitted a national league. But soccer remained an uncomfortable game to watch. Tripoli’s stadium was built in 1968, a year before the colonel’s coup, but 42 years later it still lacked seats. It was also dangerous. His third son and Special Forces commander, Saadi, captained Tripoli’s team but threatened his players if they failed to score. Television commentators could mention his name alone, identifying other players only as numbers. And when fans from Benghazi’s Al Ahali team sent a donkey onto the pitch garbed in Saadi’s colors ahead of a game against Tripoli, Qaddafi’s security forces razed the club to the ground.
The post-revolution football fever was not limited to Tripoli. The following weekend, Libya was playing Togo. I was at Leptis Magna, probably the world’s finest and most complete ancient Roman city built on the shore of the Mediterranean, a two-hour drive from the capital. Bar a few local visitors, I had the site to myself. Using the antiquities as a clothes peg I took off my clothes and dived into the waves, before returning to the present in the company of militiamen (including one recently returned from fighting in Syria) who had abandoned their posts as guards to watch the game in their cabin. At half-time I left for the adjacent fishing town, Khoms, a relaxed seaside resort. When Libya won, youth thronged the streets, waving flags from their car windows and honking claxons. There were similar scenes in cities countrywide, including Benghazi where secessionists are reportedly gaining ground. The infrastructure holding Libya together might be crumbling, but the emotional bonds binding Libyans together still seem rather strong.