Striking lucky

Dermot Corrigan tells of how a player more used to scoring in Drogheda and Derry made his full international debut in Tripoli

On the first weekend in June, most Irish football eyes were fixed on Macedonia, where the Republic of Ireland won 2-0 in a Euro 2012 qualifier. One head though – that of Dublin-born Eamon Zayed – was more interested in Group C of the African Cup of Nations qualifiers, where his Libyan team drew 1-1 away to the Comoros Islands to remain in the hunt for a place at next year’s finals.

It is probably fair to say that Zayed did not grow up dreaming of playing the Comoros away. An underage star for Ireland, his team-mates at the 2003 World Youth Championship included Glenn Whelan, Keith Fahey and Kevin Doyle. While not following them to Premier League football and the full Irish national team, Zayed has built an impressive League of Ireland career, regularly scoring goals for Bray Wanderers, Drogheda United (where he won a league title medal), Sporting Fingal and current club Derry City. Now aged 27, he looks at least as likely as Whelan, Fahey and Doyle to be playing international tournament football next summer.

Zayed’s first call-up for Libya was for an ACN qualifying group game against Zambia last September, after their new Brazilian manager Marcos Paquetá scoured Europe for qualified footballers to augment his until then fully home-based squad. Zayed, despite his record with Ireland Under-20s and Under-21s, fitted the bill as both grandparents on his dad’s side were born in Libya.

An administrative mix-up meant Zayed could not play in the Zambia game, but he was in the dressing room pre-match to hear the motivational speech given by Libyan FA head Al Saadi al-Gaddafi – the dictator’s son who played briefly in Italy and was a Juventus board member. Zayed and fellow new face Djamal Mahamat of Beira Mar in Portugal then sat among 60,000 happy fans at Tripoli’s June 11 Stadium as the home team surprised the more fancied Zambians 1-0.

They both then made their debuts in a 1-1 friendly draw against Niger in November. Zayed recently told Irish radio station Newstalk that he really enjoyed the experience.“The Libyans really love their football,” he said. “They made a big thing about having European-based players coming to play for them. There was a big crowd at the airport, with TV cameras waiting for us. It was all a bit surreal.” According to Zayed, this publicity and his performance against Niger led to a battle between Libya’s two biggest clubs for his signature, but the league changed the rules to prevent him signing for a team not favoured by the Gaddafi family.

Given what has happened since in Libya – popular revolt, brutal reprisals, UN-backed bombing campaign, potentially open-ended civil war – signing for Derry City instead can be seen as a close escape. “It is scary just to think about what is happening over there,” Zayed said. “I have a lot of family there and my dad would be in contact with them. Some of the friends I met through the football were playing in Benghazi, which was the first major city to come under attack. It is very worrying.”

Libya’s March 29 home qualifier against the Comoros was surprisingly not cancelled but switched from Tripoli to Bamako in Mali. Neither Zayed nor his Benghazi-based team-mates made the trip, but the Libyans still comfortably won 3-0 to go top of Group C. June’s draw in the return match saw them slip behind the Zambians in the table, but the group looks likely to go down to the wire. Libya’s next game is scheduled for Tripoli in September against Mozambique, although it seems likely that will also be switched to Bamako. A win there and again in the final group game away to Zambia in October will see the team qualify for next summer’s finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Considering the more than difficult current situation in the country, this would be some achievement for the Libyan team, which has never played in a senior World Cup and only featured in two previous ACNs, one of which they hosted. Zayed missed the last two games, but has said he remains keen to resume his international career. “I am very proud of playing international football for them,” he told Newstalk. “Playing for Libya in an African Cup of Nations tournament is something I would really like to do.”

From WSC 293 July 2011