“I will name new faces from inside and outside the country to join the Eritrean National squad during the coming days, as they will help the team to continue winning.” These were the hopeful words of the Eritrean national team coach, Alemseged Efrem, earlier this year ahead of the first round of African World Cup qualification.
His contention that Eritrea could “keep winning” was a rather rose-tinted one. Their last victory came a long six years ago when a win over Somalia and a draw with Zimbabwe saw the Red Sea Camels reach the quarter finals of the CECAFA Cup where they lost to Tanzania. This, following on from another quarter final appearance two years earlier, marked the high point of Eritrean football. Since then there has been nothing but defeat, with more than a smattering of tournament withdrawals thrown in for good measure. But what has really caused Eritrean football to hit the headlines in recent years is the spate of player and officials deserting and seeking political asylum when the team has played abroad.
The story of Eritrean football is not a straightforward one, but is a troubling, though admittedly intriguing one.
Though a national team of sorts had competed in the 1994 CECAFA Cup and had earlier played a couple of friendly matches in Sudan, Eritrea’s football association was only formed in 1996. That was some three years after the nation in the Horn of Africa voted to declare independence from Ethiopia after a conflict lasting some three decades. Even independence didn’t bring peace, as ongoing skirmished with Ethiopia led to another war in the closing years of the twentieth century.
In the midst of all that turmoil, the new nation was accepted into FIFA in 1998 and made their officially sanctioned international bow in the following year’s CECAFA Cup, and performed admirably if unspectacularly. A draw and a narrow loss were not a bad return for the debutants.
Things steadily improved from there, with the qualifying rounds for the 2000 African Cup of Nations seeing Eritrea grab a goalless draw at home to the might of Cameroon, and going one better with a home win over Mozambique. They repeated that goalless draw against an African superpower in their first World Cup campaign the following year, holding Nigeria at home in Asmara. Such relatively impressive results were not that unusual for Eritrea in the early years of the twenty-first century, but this stuttering progress was not to last. Political and internal strife was to take centre stage, and Eritrea soon found themselves more associated with player defections than playing success.
High numbers of refugees have been leaving, or attempting to leave, Eritrea in recent years. They are fleeing a country where torture is widespread and slavery practices are common, as identified by the United Nations. Eritrean citizens are subjected to indefinite national service, and most damming of all, the UN report alleged that people who tried to flee the country were killed.
Some athletes travelling abroad for competition have taken the opportunity to abscond. In 2006, four players from the country’s top team, Red Sea FC, defected after a Champions League match in Nairobi, before twelve national team players did the same at the CECAFA Cup in Tanzania. More players deserted in 2009 after that impressive CECAFA Cup quarter final appearance. Twelve players refused to board their return flight from Kenya. Many of those were eventually granted asylum in Australia.
In 2012, no fewer than seventeen players and a team doctor fled after the CECAFA Cup tournament in Uganda and applied for asylum there. The following year another nine players and a coach disappeared in Kenya. And on it goes. The Eritrean government began demanding financial deposits from players before they travelled abroad, but the issue persists.
After those World Cup qualifying matches with Botswana earlier this year, another ten players refused to return to Eritrea and were detained by local police pending asylum applications. The big fear is that given the ongoing national service of all Eritreans, the players are technically part of the armed forces and are likely to be charged with desertion if they are refused asylum and sent back home. That crime would be punishable by death. What punishment may be inflicted on their families in Eritrea is an additional terrifying thought.
In the face of their ever-dwindling player pool, as Alemseged Efrem alluded to in the quote at the top of this article, the Eritrean’s have recently sought to supplement their ranks with players of Eritrean descent overseas. The recent matches with Botswana, both defeats, saw debuts for a group of lower league journeymen from England, notably the Idris brothers, Semir and Amir, who play for Pontefract Collieries F.C. in the Northern Counties East League, Premier Division.
But the jewel in their crown in the thirty year-old Swedish-born striker Henok Goitom – a former Swedish under-21 international – who enjoyed a long career in Spain and now plays for his home town AIK Solna in the Swedish top flight Allsvenskan. His recruitment is something of a coup for Eritrea, bringing a level of ability and experience that no local could ever hope to achieve. He marked his first foray into African international football with a delightful goal in the second leg in Botswana, before the political troubles of his teammates took centre stage.
With Goitom in the team, Eritrea’s prospects are infinitely improved, but it is the fate of his colleagues, and the question of the future prospects of getting a team together, which are far more likely to hamper any progress he may be able to instil. Eritrea did not take part in the recent CECAFA Cup in Ethiopia due to the ongoing political tensions between the two and have already withdrawn from the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers that are currently in progress. As a result, Goitom and the Red Sea Camels may not see any action again until the next CECAFA Cup tournament, currently scheduled for the end of next year.