Africa Cup Of Nations 2012: Libyan Players Who Fought Gaddafi Go Down To Hosts In Opening Match

Libyans Who Fought In Rebellion Suffer Defeat In African Nations Opener

The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off on Saturday with Libya, playing their first international tournament in the post-Gaddafi era, facing hosts Equatorial Guinea.

The competition, first held in 1957, opened with a bizarre yet flamboyant ceremony in which images of portly dancers writhing to the beats of African drums were projected onto a huge plinth in the middle of the pitch. In ’57 only three teams took part. This year’s tournament boasts 16, with Gabon co-hosting.

Were he still alive and in charge of the North African state, Gaddafi would no doubt have been in attendance – all hat, robes and sunglasses. As it was, the Libyan team were no longer playing for the Colonel but for their new country, for the rebels and for the Arab Spring that so dramatically toppled the ageing autocrat after decades of one-man rule.

Some Libya players in the squad return to football having taken up arms in last year’s uprising. In a recent qualifying win over Mozambique, the team donned the red, black and green of the revolution.

"This is much more important than just some football cup," said midfielder Walid al-Katroushi before the game. Al-Katroushi fought on the front line for the rebels during last year's uprising.

"We came here because we want to do something good for Libya – we are not here to enjoy ourselves."

Speaking to the Associated Press, the player added: "The Libyan people understand football – they love the game. It's a long time since the country had something to smile and be happy about and that's up to us now."

"Of course, everybody would be afraid of dying at a young age, but we had to do something to make a change in the government. I'm proud of what we did, but that's not why we fought. We did it for our country."

According to Marcos Paqueta, the team’s Brazilian coach, the rebellion “seemed to make them [the players] more determined, more focused, more able to play above themselves.”

Their opponents, Equatorial Guinea, a country propped up by oil money under the regime Teodoro Obiang, had something more tangible to play for - $1m win bonuses, plus a healthy $20,000 per goal.

Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema speaks at the tournament

Towards the end of the ceremony, bare chests and straw skirts gave way to Obiang’s menacing visage, peering down across the new stadium in Bata, a reminder of the country’s repressive dictatorial system where wealth comes at the expense of freedom. Its human rights record is also a point of international concern.

On the pitch, money won over romance, with Guinea securing an unexpected 1-0 win thanks to a late effort from Javier Balboa, much to the delight of the on-looking tyrant.

In the other opening game, defeat befell one of the tournament favourites, as Zambia beat the hotly-fancied Senegal 2-1.

With defending champions Egypt failing to qualify for the tournament, alongside heavyweight nations Cameroon and Nigeria, the competition is wide open, with Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Senegal, despite their defeat, among the bookmakers’ favourites.

In Malabo on Sunday the Ivory Coast will take on Sudan, while minnows Burkina Faso face Angola.


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