Wednesday 19 December 2018

Zayed still willing to answer Libya's call

Derry striker is lucky to have avoided turmoil in the home of his grandparents, writes Marie Crowe

L ess than six months ago, Derry City's Eamon Zayed was in Tripoli, playing for Libya and on the verge of signing for a club in the city. The transfer didn't happen because of a bizarre rule which puts an age restriction on European-based footballers playing in the Libyan league.

Now, as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate, Zayed sees it as a blessing in disguise. "If things had worked out, I'd be there now," he says. "All my friends, family, coaches and international team-mates are in the middle of this crisis. A few of the lads I play with are from Benghazi and play their club football there. That was the first city that was hit, so first and foremost I hope everyone is okay and safe."

It all started for the 27-year-old last summer when a new coach was appointed to the Libyan national team. Following in the footsteps of other countries, such as Ireland, the new management decided to seek out European-based players who were eligible to play with Libya.

Zayed's father is Tunisian, but his grandparents were Libyan, so he qualified. Contact was made through his father who speaks Arabic and a meeting was arranged. Zayed and his father travelled to Libya to meet manager Marcos Paqueta, who hails from Brazil.

In Libya, football is the only sport played by the masses. Colonel Gaddafi's son Saadi, is very involved in the game, and a few years ago while playing Serie A in Italy he captained the national side. Every game attracts massive crowds and international players are regarded as celebrities. News of Zayed's potential switch and pending trip to Libya made headlines there so when he arrived at the airport he was greeted by a horde of journalists and photographers.

"The whole experience was very surreal," says Zayed. "We were given first-class plane tickets, put up in the nicest hotel in Libya and followed by loads of journalists from the hotel to training. Magazines and newspapers came to the hotel to do interviews and there were cameras constantly at training.

"On my second day there I did an interview for the main sports channel and for the rest of my trip I had random people coming up to me asking if I was the new guy on the football team. I came from Sporting Fingal, where we'd have a few hundred at a game to Libya where they could be 60 or 70 thousand people watching."

A few weeks later, Zayed was lined up to play his first game for Libya -- a qualifier last summer against Zambia for the Africa Cup of Nations. He travelled over to join up with the squad a few days early to train and get to know his team-mates. The Libyan coach only speaks Portuguese so a translator was on hand to translate from Portuguese to Arabic for the officials and Arabic to English for Zayed.

"I didn't know what to expect the first day but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Everyone was very friendly, they smiled and they tried to say hello in English and Arabic. There was one guy on the team who spoke English very well so that really helped me settle in."

Over 50,000 people turned up for the game; however, a few hours before kick-off, Zayed was informed that his paperwork hadn't come through and he'd have to sit out the match. Luckily he didn't have to wait long to make his international debut. A few weeks later, a friendly was organised against Niger and Zayed got 65 minutes. "I was nervous during the opening stages but I settled then. The communication was a bit of a problem as they had brought in a different squad to the one that had played in the qualifier. I think a lot of players were trying to impress the coach and I found it difficult to communicate on the pitch but I think it was just because it was a friendly and they don't take them as seriously as we do at home.

"Playing international football is something I'll have to get used to; even Ireland who often play bad teams can sometimes struggle. No matter who we play they are going to be decent and its going to be a good test. Technically, Libya are very good. I'm a striker and that seems to be where they are lacking players."

At that time Zayed's contract with Sporting Fingal was coming to an end so he decided to investigate playing club football in Tripoli.

There are two main clubs in the city and Zayed got offers he couldn't refuse from both teams. He made his decision, signed off on his end but before the deal was officially completed he was informed that a new rule was about to be enforced in Libya that would prevent anyone under the age of 30 who was playing for the Libyan national team and who had played club football in Europe from playing in the Libyan league.

"I was all set to go," he says. "As far as I was concerned, the transfer was sorted. There was some politics involved in the rule change. There are two teams there that I was talking to and I know now that I should have only talked to one.

"I'm not sure exactly what happened but a Portuguese guy and I were set to be the first two guys from Europe to play over there and then they changed the rule when we picked what club we were going to play with so basically it was a rule for the two of us."

Although Zayed was very disappointed with how it turned out, he managed to secure a contract with Derry City, for whom he scored his first league goal on Friday night.

Libya are currently joint top of their qualifying group for the Africa Cup of Nations. For now all of the national team's games are postponed indefinitely but when they resume, Zayed has no qualms about going back to play for Libya.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport