LOS ANGELES: Watching on a screen more than 5,000 miles from Zawiya, Mohamed El-Munir shook his head at the scenes unfolding in his homeland.
It’s seven years since El-Munir left Libya to pursue his professional career shortly after the strife of the civil war began. It was a journey which took him to eastern Europe and then, last winter, Orlando, Florida. But the left-back has never forgotten his roots.
He remains an avid follower of Libyan football and he was deeply disturbed by the scenes in June’s cup final. The sight of players ducking to the sound of nearby gunshots in the dying minutes at Al-Khums Stadium was disturbing enough, but from a purely footballing standpoint, so too was Al-Hilal’s players walking off the pitch in protest at the refereeing.
For El-Munir, it was symptomatic of the lack of leadership in the Libyan game. The 26-year-old has grown jaded with the motives and administrative skills of those running the country’s clubs and football federation. As FIFA prepare to lift the ban on international matches in Libya, El-Munir has called for a massive overhaul to ensure homegrown talent can flourish.
“I’m still watching the league and I really feel sorry for my footballer friends and the supporters. No-one takes responsibility,” said the Libyan international.
“They don’t want to punish clubs or punish players and they can’t control it. I watched the cup final a few weeks ago and I’ve never seen anything like it. These kind of things need to be stopped. You need to put in rules that everyone respects.
“We need the right people in the right positions who want to work and make something good. The people at the moment are just looking to make money, not looking to make football better.”
El-Munir, below, got his first-team break after coming through the ranks at Al-Ittihad, but left Tripoli when the war forced the suspension of domestic football — joining Serbian outfit Jagodina. It was the start of a successful club career overseas after winning the Serbian cup with Jagodina and then Partizan Belgrade, before he agreed a switch to MLS last December.
But he is convinced that talented homegrown players have little choice than to follow his example if they are to fulfil their potential, due to the lack of training or structure available.
“I played in Libya until I was 18 and I’m telling you we have a very good quality of league. It’s just they need discipline,” he said.
“That’s the big difference between the Arab and European players. They have a lot of quality, but lack discipline. It’s a problem for the clubs, they should bring the right people in to make sure these young players know that discipline comes before quality.
“With talent you can play for a few years, but if you are not disciplined, by the time you get to 26-27, you can’t train properly and can’t play anywhere else.”
If FIFA do allow the Mediterranean Knights to play home games inside Libya for the first time since 2013 though, it will represent a major boost to the country’s footballing scene. Coupled with the appointment of former Kenya boss Adel Amrouche as the new national team manager, there should be added momentum to the African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.
After thrashing the Seychelles 5-1 in their opening qualifier, Libya currently sit atop South Africa and Nigeria in their bid to reach the finals for the first time since 2012. After such a bloody and violent recent history, El Munir — who has won 16 caps for his country — knows what a tonic that would be for Libya.
“I know the national team has brought in a new coach and hopefully we can get our preparations right because we have a good chance.
“Before the war started in our country, we reached the Africa Cup and we can do it again now. I hope we can do it this year for the people who are suffering because they need everything they can get to make them happy.
“To go to the World Cup or Africa Cup brings a lot of joy and happiness to the people. I hope that someday, if it’s not me, there will be soccer players who can do this.”
El-Munir became a trailblazer last December when he agreed to become the first Libyan to play in MLS after penning a deal at Orlando City.
It has been a tough season for Orlando, who lie third bottom in the MLS Eastern Conference, endured a nine-game losing streak between May and July and replaced sacked manager Jason Kreis with former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder James O’Connor in June.
However, on a personal level, El-Munir feels at home in the US after a contract dispute at former club Partisan Belgrade forced him to look for new employers.
“There were some clubs in Sweden and France interested, but my agent has good connections with another agent who is friends with Niki [Niki Budalic, Orlando general manager],” said El-Munir.
“They were asking for players in a couple of positions and left-back was one of them. That’s how the idea came and they said I was going to be free from my contract.
“It’s a new challenge, MLS is not an easy league, but for me, I’ve really enjoyed it and I think I’ve done well with it.
“I have a contract for another year as an option. I’m happy here and I don’t have a problem staying.”
MLS’ profile has been boosted over recent months by the arrivals of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — the latter bagging a hat-trick in a 4-3 win for LA Galaxy over Orlando last month.
But El-Munir has been impressed with MLS for more than just the big names.
“It’s not just the superstar players. In every team you find really good young players who are making a big difference. The combination is helping the league to improve, to be better quality and faster,” he added.
“There are different champions in MLS every year too. It’s not like in Europe where you can predict who will be champions. Everyone has a chance to win the league and the cup.”
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