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Sep 10, 2011

Russian fears, Drogba & Libyan rebels

This week's Africa Report reads like socio-political football commentary, touching on why Libya's national team is extra-motivated by the political situation as well as why Africa's footballers are scared of flying in Russia.

Libya: hope and pride

Libya have not lost a game (friendly or competitive) since January 5, 2010. Surprised? That makes two of us, then. While the world media has been scavenging for all that is bad about the North African state, the Greens have been quietly keeping the national psyche intact with their displays.

A week ago, the All Africa Games (an African Olympics of sorts) started in Mozambique. Football, being one of the 23 sports being contested this time, takes pride of place in this predominantly footballing nation. Before the tournament, the AAG was hit with withdrawals, first from Mauritania and then Libya.

Mauritania had already withdrawn from the African Nations Cup qualifiers for next year, so it was no surprise. Libya, on the other hand, are still in African qualifying and in with a shout, but the troubles at home meant the decision had to be made. In the end Egypt, Libya's only opponent, qualified by default.

The withdrawal of the Libyan contingent from the Games was keenly monitored by the Mozambican press, who were readying themselves for the crucial African Cup qualifier with the Greens on September 3.

Mozambique had already played Libya in the first leg a year ago and, despite home advantage, the southern Africans had failed to win. This second leg was supposed to be Libya's home game but was, for security reasons, played in Egypt. However, Mozambique hoped the political tensions would allow Libya to withdraw from this game as well, giving them (Mozambique) a bye in the process.

How wrong they were. At the moment this Libyan side is, if anything, more motivated than it has been in a long time. Football has always been used by authoritarian governments to push their agenda, but in the case of Libya, the national team is currently firmly inclined towards the National Transitional Council, who used to be the rebel opposition.

From a propagandist point of view, this has severely damaged the support for the Gaddafi regime, as the soul of people carried with the national team sits in the rebels' hands. Since June, when goalkeeper Juma Gtat announced the team's decision to side with the NTC, 18 notable players have also publicly followed suit.

Libya's domestic top flight has 16 teams, which all have allegiances to Colonel Gaddafi. Started in 1963, the league is currently sponsored by Libyana, the biggest telecom operator in the country and chaired by Muhammad, eldest son of the embattled colonel.

Since 2004, when Libyana took over sponsorship, there have been a smattering of upgrades to the league but it still remains semi-professional. This has meant that there is no real competition, as the sport is ruled according to the whims of the elite. The country is awash with money, but very little of it is seen in football development. The largest stadium seats 65,000 and is, predictably, home to the nation's most successful club, Al Ittihad.

They have won 16 of Libya's 41 league championships. The rest are shared among clubs based in Tripoli and Benghazi. Then there is Al Madina, who share the same June 11 Stadium that houses Al Ittihad. The rest of the stadiums in the league do not measure up at all, ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 seaters.

The best talents are usually snapped up in their youth by the big clubs, making the other teams perennial pedestrians. However, as in many cases, there is the occasional juggernaut. Despite playing for the small Akhdar club in Bayda, the country's fourth largest city, Abdelhameed al Zaidani scored 21 goals in the 2007 season. It remains the highest number of goals scored in a single Libya Premier League season. He still plays there, and is a rare success outside of the big clubs in Tripoli and Benghazi, where the power and money is centred.

All of this has led to the current national side feeling a wave of patriotism they have not felt before. They went into the game against Mozambique with a swagger that disconcerted the Black Mambas. Back home, hundreds had gathered near Martyr's Square to watch on large screens. It was the first match since rebels took control of the capital.

The team wore a new white jersey with the three colours of the pre-Gaddafi flag adopted by the NTC. Libya controlled the tempo of the game, which was played behind closed doors. On 31 minutes, Rabie el-Lofi scored what would be the only goal. Against all odds, Libya had temporarily gone top of Group C, meaning qualification for the next African Nations Cup is almost certain.

Watching Yaroslavl in fear

The plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League crashed near Yaroslavl on Wednesday. Forty-three people died, including players and officials from ten nations. The team was on its way to Minsk, Belarus, in order to start the 2011–12 hockey league season. Due to the international make-up of the league, this tragedy reverberated throughout the hockey world.

Though not directly affected, football also took notice. Russia has 16 teams in its premier soccer league, spread around a geographically large area. Moscow alone has four teams, one of which is CSKA, home of the league's joint top scorer, Seydou Doumbia. "Obviously the airlines try hard to get us to and from games but we can't help thinking about our safety when we are supposed to fly," he said.

From Ivory Coast, the man many have called "the new Drogba" is the reason CSKA sit atop the league, with his 13 goals in 20 games making them favourites to take one of two Champions League slots next season. Like most, he was shocked at the demise of the hockey players, but was also worried about the problem of air safety.

The Ivorian hitman has been courted by many European sides, so the logical question is: why has he not left if he is so worried about air safety? "Any African player you ask this question will tell you it's about money. The money is quite good in the Moscow clubs." He also explained that clubs are aware of the poor air safety record in Russia and do their best to make getting to games by air as infrequently as possible. "As much as possible we go to games by bus. But playing against Zenit, for example, means we have to go by air." Zenit is the northernmost team in the Russian league.

Doumbia has scored three in CSKA's last two games, getting a brace against FC Tom Tomsk, 1800 miles east of Moscow."For distances like that you have to go by air. Just before we left Sheremetyevo [Airport], our flight was delayed because our club officials were not satisfied with the pre-flight checks. It's normal."

Apart from FC Tom Tomsk in Siberia, all the Russian league teams are in the west of the country. But in Russia, the world's largest country, the word "west" comprises a huge landmass. Former Ghana international Laryea Kingston told me about the transport fears players faced. He played in three different Russian teams between 2004 and 2007.

"I played for Krylia Sovetov, Terek Grozny and Lokomotiv Moscow and at all three places, players spoke about how poor air services were." According to him, players in other European leagues usually love flying to games since it was safer. Not in Russia. "It was very common for us to hear funny noises in planes if we travelled over long distances. When you tell the club bosses, they will say there is nothing much they can do."

The situation needs urgent attention, as Russia has already had 15 plane crashes this year alone. However, it seems the lure of money keeps pulling African footballers there. Are they doing it at the risk of their lives? We hope not.

Drogba: Le politicien

Obviously, it's great to be Didier Drogba - with the money, fame and the glamour. It is especially so in the Ivory Coast, where he is almost deified. However, in the past few months, being Drogba has meant taking responsibility and effecting roles that do not involve scoring goals - at least not on the football field.

Following the country's post-election conflict that plunged everything into chaos, the Ivory Coast government contacted the Chelsea man for a special assignment. He was asked to be part of a special 11-member commission with a difficult job: reconciling a nation through advocacy and dialogue.

He accepted. His specific role would be to score goals in the hearts of his countrymen, especially those in the Diaspora. Due to his current injury, Drogba could not attend the first sitting of the commission that took place during the recent international break. But what made Drogba so appealing for this political job, outside his popularity?

The player is Catholic, which guarantees him accessibility with the country's Christian minority - the bulk of whom are Catholic. His wife, Lalla, is a Muslim which scores him valuable points among the religious majority who mostly live in the north. She is also Malian, which means he will beat the offside trap set by traditional apathy from the large foreign West African population, who live and trade in the country.

Ivory Coast's economy is also heavily reliant on remittances from its citizens abroad, and Drogba is expected to hold meetings with them whenever possible. The message will be obvious: help me kick ethnocentrism out and let's get Ivory Coast the three points.

He has started brilliantly, already. After the injury he sustained at Norwich, he sent emissaries to speak on his behalf in a meeting with Ivorians in London. In the video message, he apologised for his inability to be there but relayed the message clearly. He ended by asking his countrymen to push for peace.

But not everyone is happy with the striker's decision to accept this latest challenge. Drogba is from the Bete tribe, where the deposed Laurent Gbagbo comes from. At the height of the post-election troubles this year, the rebels attacked Drogba's village, burning down his home in the process. Although Drogba has asked for the incident to be forgotten, many of his tribesmen are dishing political yellow cards at every opportunity.

So far, Drogba is dodging the flying tackles. Here's to hoping he goes unbeaten.

• Gary Al-Smith is a freelance African football journalist for ESPN and is on twitter @garyalsmith

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