Even in the years before the more recent migration crises, there has been a steady drift of migrants from Africa, and East Africa in particular, to Europe. Sweden has accepted a number of migrants over the years, and in recent news were the first to take in a number of Eritrean migrants under the rather controversial EU quote scheme.
One son of an earlier migrant to Sweden from Eritrea is Henok Goitom, a striker with quite a successful career in some of Europe’s top leagues, who now plays for AIK Solna, his home town team, in Sweden’s Allsvenskan top division.
Born in Solna, effectively a suburb of Stockholm, to Eritrean parents, Goitom came through the youth ranks at Stockholm’s Essinge and Vasalunds in Solna, before getting his professional breakthrough in Italy with Udinese. His one and only Serie A appearance for Udinese lasted just seven minutes. As a late substitute he managed to score a stoppage time equaliser against Inter Milan, but he never played for the first team again.
Instead he was loaned out to Murcia in Spain where his career really took off before he secured a permanent move. In spells with Ciudad Murcia, then Real Murcia, Valladolid and Almeira he was a consistent, if not especially prolific, goal scorer. Early on in his Spanish endeavours he was called up to the Swedish under-21 side, making thirteen appearances and scoring four times for them, mainly in the qualification for the European under-21 championships.
Goitom was an outside bet for a place in the full national squad for the 2006 World Cup finals, but didn’t make the cut. He did take his place in the senior Swedish squad in March 2009 for a World Cup qualifier in Portugal, although he didn’t make the final match day squad. That was his one and only opportunity at that rarefied level, and now thirty, his chances of full international recognition for Sweden have passed him by.
But what initially emerged as a possibility as far back as 2010 has now become a reality – Henok Goitom playing for the country of his parents, Eritrea. He requested permission from FIFA to switch footballing allegiances, and the permission was granted in time for him to take his place in October’s World Cup qualifiers against Botswana.
Back in 2010, not long after his near-miss with the Swedish side, he told the BBC that “I now have to have a serious discussion with the Swedish coach.” He naturally still held ambitions of playing for Sweden, but the Eritrean option as one that he had increasingly begun to think about. “If not (likely to play for Sweden) then I’ll look at the situation, but I’ve already talked to my parents about playing for Eritrea. My father has also been in touch with the country’s president about me getting Eritrean nationality, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
Further Eritrean interest arose in 2013 before he finally made the switch in 2015. The obvious reason for any delay was the possibility of a Swedish cap, which became less and less likely as he got older.
And though he had rarely been to Eritrea, his heritage was a matter close to his heart. During his Almeria days he took the unusual step of having his name printed in Tigrinyi (the local Eritrean dialect) rather than in Spanish on his shirt. “It was my cousin’s idea, actually, and then I talked to my Dad about it,” he told Spanish newspaper Marca at the time. “My old language teacher fixed the letters for me, so that you could put them on the jersey. I did it to demonstrate that Eritrea is part of my heart.”
When he eventually did make his Eritrea debut, it was in World Cup action against Botswana. The first leg was lost 2-0 in Asmara before the squad travelled to Francistown, Botswana’s second city, for the return leg. The match would largely be forgotten in the aftermath of player desertions and asylum seeking that followed, but in what was another defeat – 3-1 this time – Goitom scored his first goal for Eritrea.
A cross from wide fired in by Yonas Solomon was met by an excellent header from Goitom only nine minutes into the game to give Eritrea the lead. The fairy tale couldn’t last, sadly, as the near inevitable defeat followed, but in that moment Eritrea’s future footballing hope was encapsulated. Having now sunk to the bottom of the FIFA world rankings it is only to be hoped the Goitom, and other migrant descendants like him continue to represent the land of their forebears.
Goitom is not the only Swede playing in the Eritrean since he is joined by Senai Birhane, a defender in Sweden’s second division. Between them they represent by far the highest calibre of any Eritrean player. In addition to a few lower league players from England, it is the diaspora that gives Eritrean football any semblance of hope. They also hope to attract the FSV Frankfurt player Nehon Ghebru in the future. Amidst all of their other difficulties, surely it is they who are the means by which Eritrea can escape their current ranking malaise.