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How a call from Africa saved an Irish footballer's career

Former Derry City and Shamrock Rovers striker Eamon Zayed reflects on his time playing with Libya.

Eamon Zayed (file pic).
Eamon Zayed (file pic).
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

BY 2010, EAMON Zayed had grown disillusioned with football. He would turn 27 that year.

The former Ireland underage international had spent most of his career in the domestic game.

Aside from a couple of years with Leicester City at underage level and a brief loan spell with Norwegian side Aalesunds, his only experience had been in Irish football.

After an unusually lucrative spell in the early to mid-2000s when top players could earn relatively big wages, money was beginning to dry up in the League of Ireland.

The country entered into a recession in 2008 and the league suffered partially as a consequence.

Zayed’s club, Sporting Fingal, were one of the teams badly affected and ultimately withdrew from the league ahead of the 2011 season due to financial difficulties.

“I had joined Sporting Fingal in 2009 and I was there for two years,” he tells The42. “I undertook a masters in DCU in finance. That year, 2010, was probably my toughest playing football. I was trying to juggle a full-time masters with playing. And I was playing out of position at Sporting Fingal, I just wasn’t enjoying it.

“The summer when I finished my masters, I started looking for jobs. I had interviews with Bank of Ireland and a couple of other financial firms in town. I was actively looking to get out of full-time football and get on the financial career path.”

Yet suddenly, an opportunity unexpectedly arose.

Zayed was born in Dublin to an Irish mother and Tunisian father, while his grandparents hailed from Libya.

Until then, Libya tended to focus on Africa-based players, but just as he was considering his future in football, Zayed was informed that recently appointed Brazilian coach Marcos Paquetá wanted him to line out for the country.

The striker agreed and reflecting on it now more than a decade on, Zayed says the decision “absolutely saved my career”.

Zayed was invited to link up with the squad along with fellow European-based player Djamal Mahamat, who was playing for Portuguese side Beira-Mar at the time.

“They had never called anybody over from Europe,” Zayed recalls. “So I remember it well and I remember flying in, not knowing what to expect and when we got over there, flying into the Libyan airport, and obviously Colonel Gaddafi was in charge of Libya at this stage. We were met by a lot of TV media and journalists as soon as we got off the plane. We were thinking: ‘This is crazy, what’s going on?’

“Here’s Eamon coming over from Ireland from Sporting Fingal, playing in front of a couple of thousand at most.

“I’m now getting off a flight to Libya and we’re surrounded by journalists and there are news cameras in my face. 

“The whole week in training leading up to the game, there was a big fuss about two professional players coming over from Ireland and Portugal. It was great. They brought us onto the pitch before the match, [and they spoke] in Arabic obviously. We walked out onto the centre of the pitch and they introduced us to 60,000 people there at the game. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was great.”

libyas-head-coach-marcos-paqueta-of-brazil-reacts-during-their-african-nations-cup-group-a-soccer-match-against-zambia-at-estadio-de-bata-bata-stadium-in-bata-january-25-2012-reutersamr-abdalla Marcos Paqueta handed Eamon Zayed his first Libya call-up. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Zayed, who says he won around 12 caps in total, rediscovered his love of football as a result of the experience.

“That week transformed my views in terms of quitting football. It reignited a passion, this burning flame inside me and I was like: ‘Do you know what? I want to experience this again.’ As soon as I came back, I said: ‘No, I’m going to continue playing and look for a full-time gig the following year.’

“There have been a couple of moments in my career where I can look back and go: ‘Well, that changed the years ahead and where I am now.’ And that absolutely was a moment.

“I was walking away from full-time football. I had enough. I wasn’t enjoying it. And that week was just phenomenal.

“Training with the national team, having the cameras following you around, the 60,000 fans welcoming you to the national team, I hadn’t experienced that before.”

Zayed, however, missed out on becoming part of a small group of former and current League of Ireland players, which includes Joseph N’Do, Romuald Boco and this year Roberto Lopes, to take part in the Africa Cup of Nations.

He was called up to a provisional squad for the 2012 tournament but ultimately didn’t travel.

The tournament began in January and the previous month, Zayed had signed with Iran Pro League side, Persepolis, on a six-month contract.

Lining out for Libya would have caused him to miss games for Persepolis and the Dubliner was eager to make a good impression with his new employers.

“There were a couple of moments where I got called up playing for Libya and I didn’t go and it took a while for them to call me back after that.

“I had just finished in 2011 with Derry City. I had a good season personally, winning player of the year and I was trying to focus on my career [at club level] and my next team. Then I got the call-up to go to Iran and I didn’t want anything to affect that.

“They were [annoyed that I declined the chance]. But it was more like a provisional squad. They weren’t guaranteeing that I was going to be in the African Cup of Nations squad. So they weren’t happy at all with it. But I just felt I had to put my club first at that time, and no regrets, it ended up working out.”

While he only spent a year and a half in Iran ultimately, Zayed became somewhat of a cult hero during his time there, and a big reason why was a spectacular hat-trick in his first appearance as a substitute in the Tehran derby as Persepolis beat Esteghlal 3-2, in the process becoming the first non-Iranian player to achieve that feat.

The game, in front of a reported 90,000 fans, was one of Zayed’s finest moments in football. It took place on 2 February 2012. That year’s Africa Cup of Nations occurred between 21 January and 12 February, with Libya’s last group match on 29 January. So had Zayed travelled to that tournament, he would surely have been denied this famous appearance.

“That wouldn’t have happened and my path would have been different,” he says.

“Every football player wants to play in a major tournament. The Africa Cup of Nations sometimes gets disrespected but it is an international tournament and some top teams are playing over there.

“I would have loved to have played in the Africa Cup of Nations and said I represented Libya at the 2012 tournament but it just wasn’t to be.”

Source: Afshin Sharifi/YouTube

It did not spell the end of Zayed’s Libya career though.

Abdul-Hafeedh Arbeesh succeeded Paquetá in the summer of 2012 and Zayed was called up for a couple of 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

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“My final game was away to Cameroon in September 2013 and the winners of that game went to a play-off for the World Cup. We were second, they were first. They were ahead of us by a point. It was in Cameroon. I started. We ended up losing 1-0. They had a good team. Samuel Eto’o was captain. They had other good players — Alex Song was at Barcelona at the time.”

Javier Clemente, best known for managing Spain between 1992 and 1998, took over as Libya boss in 2013 and had “no interest” in calling Zayed up.

He did get another invite after Clemente was replaced by Jalal Damja — in November 2016, before a World Cup qualifier against Tunisia — but declined the offer.

“I was over in America and had a really good season with Indy Eleven. We got to the Championship final against the New York Cosmos and I decided I was going to stay in America.

“I was a little bit frustrated after the 2013 game against Cameroon when Javier Clemente took over that I never got called up. I had kind of closed the door on the international scene.

“And then in 2016, it was the day after the Championship final against the Cosmos that Libya were playing.

“I responded to the Libyan FA. They reached out to Indy Eleven. The president asked me if I wanted to go. I said ‘no, I’m making a career and a life for myself over here and I want to play in this Championship final,’ I had worked my balls off to get there. So I turned that down and they never called me up again after that.”

Having not ventured too far away from Ireland previously, since that initial Libya call-up, Zayed has travelled extensively.

He retired from playing only last year and recently became head coach for a new franchise, Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC, in USL League One.

football-fifa-world-youth-championship-uae-2003-group-e-republic-of-ireland-v-ivory-coast-sheikh-khalifah-stadium-al-ain-stock-21203-eamon-zayed-republic-of-ireland-mandatory-cred Eamon Zayed pictured playing at the World Youth Championships in 2003. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Zayed believes he would not be in America today were it not for that initial opportunity that Libya provided and encourages more Irish-based players with African connections to follow in the footsteps of the likes of himself and Roberto Lopes, the Shamrock Rovers star who is currently over in Cameroon representing Cape Verde.

“International football is very prestigious and I don’t care whether it’s a big or small country, it’s an honour. It’s fantastic and just different from any other kind of football that you’ve experienced. It opened my eyes up.

“I remember playing for Libya and we played against Sudan, Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea. I remember thinking: ‘We’ll beat these easily.’ These are small countries that some people have never even heard of. Without being disrespectful, that’s the way I looked at it.

“Then you played against these teams and you’re like: ‘Wow, these guys can play.’ And they could. Every single international country I played were decent. I’d recommend it to anybody.”

He continues: “I was born and bred in Ireland and obviously wanted to represent Ireland. I am Irish through and through. I got the honour to play U20s at the World Youth Championships [in 2003], which was unbelievable.

“I played for Ireland U21s and obviously, I wanted to play for the [senior] Irish national team. But it comes to a stage where you’re in your mid-20s and it’s unlikely to happen, and then Libya came calling and it was an honour. I was proud to play there.

“If you’re fortunate to have parents or grandparents from countries other than Ireland and it’s in your blood, and they’re looking to call you up to play for them, I would say: ‘Yeah, why not?’”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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