Will Libya’s soccer victory help unite the country?


Will Libya’s stunning soccer triumph help reinforce national identity against profound threats of division?

Libyans celebrate their team


When Libya’s national soccer team last Saturday held off powerhouse Ghana for 90 minutes of full-time, another 30 minutes of extra time, and then won a nail-biting finish in a penalty shootout in the final of the African Nations Championship in South Africa, perhaps we were looking at something more than just a game. For a country beset by warring militias, rival tribes and clans, and eastern secessionism, this dramatic upset victory in a major tournament could have significant implications in reaffirming the shared Libyan sense of national identity and pride, commonality of purpose, and, indeed, united future.

It doesn’t matter that the African Nations Championship — which excludes any players working outside their home countries — is secondary to the more major Africa Cup of Nations. The unexpected and inspiring victory set off celebrations not seen since the success of the 2011 revolution. In the immediate wake of the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia’s victory in the same tournament also helped reinforce national identity at a crucial time.

For countries in the grip of transition, or groups seeking to reinforce their identities or create new national narratives, high-level sports can, and historically frequently have, been an unlikely focal point, with impossible to measure but unmistakable political ramifications, both positive and negative.

The redoubtable James Dorsey’s Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer blog has been an invaluable resource on how soccer, soccer politics and dynamics, and soccer fans have been harbingers, barometers and, sometimes even, key factors and actors in Middle Eastern developments in recent years.

Everything from the role of Egypt’s “ultras” football hooligans in the various uprisings and protests in the country, to Qatar’s fraught (and, it would seem, increasingly implausible) bid to host the 2022 World Cup, demonstrates that soccer has a significant socio-political, and at times economic, impact in the contemporary Arab world.

Historically around the world sports, and soccer in particular, have often been seen as metaphors for national identity, reassertion or reemergence, or, alternatively, as a vehicle for sub-national tensions or interstate rivalries that have sometimes boiled over into conflict.

In Spain, Catalans and Basques have relied on soccer as a vehicle for expressing their unique identity, sometimes in an aggressive and hostile manner to traditional Castilian dominance. The first harbingers of open warfare in the former Yugoslavia came in soccer stadiums. Anyone paying attention to the chanting could not have been surprised by the various Balkan wars, including the war in Kosovo.

There are almost endless examples of how historically and throughout the world soccer has both both a uniting and inspiring force, and a means of confirming national and subnational identity groups and expressing tensions between them.

In 1969, a brief but bitter armed conflict — La guerra del fútbol (“the soccer war”) — erupted between Honduras and El Salvador. It wasn’t actually caused by the rioting following a highly contentious World Cup qualifying match, as many mistakenly think, but those tensions were the breaking point for a whole series of pre-existing disputes, largely involving territory, population and the treatment of Salvadorans living and working in Honduras.

In the case of Libya, however, the operative examples are more likely to be the way in which major soccer victories have reinforced national identities with direct, and often stabilizing and uniting, effects.

It was famously, and perhaps exaggeratedly, observed that, “Other countries have their history. Uruguay has its football.” But there’s no doubting the astonishing successes tiny, otherwise undistinguished, Uruguay had, stunning the world by winning the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, and then the first World Cup in 1930 and again by beating mighty Brazil in the 1950 final in Rio de Janeiro, has had a mightily disproportionate positive influence on Uruguayan identity and national pride.

There is also little doubt that Argentina’s first World Cup victory in 1978 gave the ruling military junta a new lease on political life and extended their rule for several years. Indeed, many of the players involved in that triumph have since expressed regret that a dictatorship fighting a “dirty war” against political opposition was able to benefit from their success. It may have left a bitter taste in many mouths over the long run, but in its immediate context Argentina’s victory was galvanizing and unifying.

It would be naïve to think that the Libyan team’s brilliant triumph is a turning point in that country’s post-dictatorship future. It cannot be a panacea to its most serious woes, or even a solution to any of them. It may indeed prove a mere blip in the unfolding Libyan saga. But it would also be naïve and, indeed, ahistorical, to dismiss the possibility that Libyans just got an invaluable reaffirmation of national unity, identity and confidence at a crucial point, when all of them are under profound threat. Take it seriously.