The Address | Benghazi – Libya
LIBYA – Ismael Tajouri-Shradi may have been born in Switzerland, raised in Austria and play in the USA’s Major League Soccer (MLS) but he always planned to represent Libya.
That dream came true last September, on a balmy afternoon in Durban, as the New York City FC forward made his international debut and fulfilled a promise made to his Libyan parents.
His debut ended in a 0-0 draw with South Africa, which kept alive Libya’s hopes of qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations finals.
He went on to play in the subsequent home and away defeats to Nigeria but then missed Libya’s 8-1 thrashing of Seychelles in November .
The results mean the Mediterranean Knights know a win over South Africa in March in their final qualifier will see them reach only their third Nations Cup in 37 years.
The son of a Libyan diplomat, Tajouri-Shradi’s formative football years were spent with Austria Vienna, but for him there was never any question of where his international allegiance lay.
“I have an Austrian passport and grew up in Austria – I love Austria,” Tajouri-Shradi explains to BBC Sport.
“But I know I am Libyan. My parents are from Libya; this is my heritage. From my first day it was Libya – I always wanted to play for them.
“It is a dream come true for any player to play for his country and this is how I felt against South Africa.”
Tajouri-Shradi’s first call-up last year was a long-time coming for Libyan fans, who had watched from afar as he impressed in the Austrian Bundesliga for Austria Vienna and then overachieving minnows Rheindorf Altach.
“For me it was a really amazing feeling to wear the Libya national team shirt against South Africa, this was a great, great moment,” Tajouri-Shradi recalls.
“It was a particularly special day for my family, who have supported me all through the years. I speak with them every day so when they heard I would be called up to the Libya national team for the first time they were so happy.
“After the match I also had so many messages from family and friends. It was a great feeling and honestly something that I cannot put into words.
“I have played just a couple of games for Libya but I want to do more for my country and the next step is to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.”
His move to the small town of Altach to the sprawling metropolis of New York City in 2018 captured the attention of legendary Libya midfielder, and current national team coach, Fawzi Al-Issawi.
The performances were impossible to ignore as his 11 goals and three assists in 27 games saw him named New York City FC’s ‘Newcomer of the Year’ in 2018.
Now he is hoping to take that form into the 2019 MLS season, which kicks off on 2 March.
“For me it was a good season in 2018 but I want to do even better this season. Always I want to help the team with my goals, with my assists,” he added.
“Everything that I can do on the pitch I will do it. Hopefully I can do even better than last year. I’m looking forward to getting back to work and can’t wait to get started.”
Tajouri-Shradi is not alone in flying the Libyan flag in the United States with Mohamed El-Munir playing for Los Angeles FC this season.
“Mohamed is a very good friend of mine, he is like my brother,” Tajouri-Shradi says.
“I have known him for a couple of years and we have a really good relationship. We speak a lot.
“He is now at LAFC but still we try to speak every week. We are both happy to be in the MLS and to be representing Libya in the United States. This is an honour.
“Now we want to fly together with the national team in March and it would be incredible to fly back to America with the win and a spot at the Africa Cup of Nations.”
Such a result would be another major achievement for Libya, who have regularly defied the odds in recent years.
Hoping to play at home
Despite the nation being embroiled in a continuing civil unrest, the Mediterranean Knights reached the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, won a first senior title at the 2014 African Nations Championship (CHAN) and finished third in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group.
It is a remarkable return given Libya have not played a home match since 2013. There have been ‘home’ fixtures in Mali, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Congo, but Tripoli has not hosted a game in almost six years.
Tajouri-Shradi has yet to play in Libya but is hopeful that he and his team-mates can at least give the country’s long-suffering fans something to cheer about.
“Making it to Egypt will be very important not just for the players, but for all the country,” he said.
“The country deserves to be happy again, to qualify. Libyans deserve to be happy.
“If we win against South Africa, we win not for us but for the country – for the fans who support us every game in Libya when they cannot travel around Africa.
“It will be a very hard game but if we win we hope it will change so many things in Libya – that is the goal for now. We must take this opportunity to make our country proud.”