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Libyans, divided by conflict, unite around football

Libyans watch the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group A football match between Senegal and the Netherlands in Martyr's Square last week
— Tripoli (AFP)

Hundreds of football fans gather in front of a huge screen in a Libyan park to watch the day's World Cup matches, a welcome escape in a country wracked by conflict.

Libya's public spaces agency has set up giant screens in parks across the capital Tripoli, allowing fans to watch matches for free under the autumn sun.

The biggest is in a seafront park next to the iconic Martyr's Square.

"It's a great initiative," said Walid al-Amari, a one-time parliamentary candidate who has watched every match since the tournament kicked off on November 20.

"Libyans love sport," he said. Young Libyans "don't care about politics, which has only brought them division and chaos."

Libyans have endured repeated conflicts and atrocities during more than a decade of political crisis since the 2011 revolt that overthrew dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Sport is one of the few leisure activities available to bored young people -- and football is by far the most popular.

Perched on ubiquitous white plastic chairs or cross-legged on the floor, spectators glued their eyes to the screen while children munched on candyfloss or ran across the park.

"I think this has a huge effect on our morale and is wiping away some of the negative things that have been weighing us down with the current political situation," Amari said.

Mohamad Trabelsi, a 68-year-old retiree, agreed.

"Being able to watch it for free is beautiful," he said. "It brings together hundreds of young people in a friendly atmosphere."

He bemoaned the fact that "so many families and young people can't afford to watch the matches on paying satellite channels."

Trabelsi also regretted the fact that unlike World Cup host Qatar, Libya -- a fellow hydrocarbon export giant -- was far from being able to host such a tournament.

But that has not stopped Libyans enjoying the cup, along with other residents of the city.

Ghanaians, Cameroonians and Ivoirians, as well as Arabs from neighbouring Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt attend the matches, and by nightfall, the park is heaving.

Taher, a young Algerian on holiday visiting Libyan friends, says the matches showed that the security situation has improved.

"The atmosphere is beautiful," he said.

Khaled, a builder from Egypt, says he usually goes elsewhere to spend his time off.

But, he says, "it's nicer watching the matches in the open air, by the sea, instead of being in a crowded, noisy cafe."

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