How Eritrean football was undermined both domestically and internationally

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The football industry has been disrupted by a number of Eritrean players who have deserted to avoid being forced to serve in the military.

The African 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers kicked off on November 15 and will determine which nine nations advance to the world cup final. With the exception of East African underdogs Eritrea, who pulled out of the qualifications before their first match against Morocco, every national team on the continent has played since.

The team’s hopes of winning the World Cup are effectively gone, and they will lose out on 10 games in the ensuing two years even without playing a single ball.

Football fans in Eritrea have come to anticipate this. Since 2010, the Red Sea Camels have now missed out on a startling total of ten major international football tournaments, including two World Cups.

Official justifications are never given, but insiders in Eritrean football think the country’s dictatorial administration removed the teams from the qualifications as a result of many high-profile football players desertions.

According to Daniel Solomon, a former scout for the Eritrean national team who now resides abroad, such is likewise the case this time.

The founder of the Eritrean Football website, Daniel, says, “It’s because of [the likelihood] of defections after away matches.” There is a round-robin 10-match competition instead of a preliminary (two-match) phase like in past World Cup qualifying campaigns. Every game would have to be played overseas because Eritrea lacks certified stadiums, which would be problematic for our FA.

“No better chance”

President Isaias Afwerki, a veteran guerrilla commander, has held the nation with an iron grip since it separated from Ethiopia in 1991. Religious minorities face discrimination and there is no freedom of the press. Above all, Eritrean migrants frequently list forced military conscription—which conscripts people into permanent servitude—as one of their main reasons for leaving the nation.

Saba Tesfayohannes, co-founder and board head of the powerful ERISAT television network, which brings dissident news to the nation from outside, says, “Once you are in your final year of high school, they’ll bus you to Sawa (military camp) where you do schooling while undergoing military training.”

“You may be called into battle at any time, either by the nation’s leader or by those of its neighbors. The most recent instance is the Tigray War in Ethiopia, which is said to have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Sawa graduates.

For many years, thousands of Eritreans have risked their lives by walking over national borders to avoid being drafted. This is because border guards in the past had a “shoot to kill” attitude towards fugitives.

Thus, since 2006, at least 89 football players from Eritrea—the majority of whom are on the men’s national team—have opted for the comparatively simpler route of fleeing while competing internationally.

“For young Eritreans who are destined to live in a country where they have duties to perform, but no rights, there is no better opportunity [to leave] than this one,” says Saba.

Hopelessness and desertion

The Eritrean government started taking preventative action because it was determined to stop the trend. In order to guarantee their return to the nation, athletes who were leaving in 2007 had to affix financial bonds totaling up to 100,000 Nakfa, or little more than $6,600. Despite this, there were still several desertions in between 2007 and 2009.

According to Saba, “the alternative is hopelessness, despair, and death.” By moving overseas, they avoid the perilous border crossing. Professional athletes see leaving as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to escape the safety that their own nation denies them.

The country’s footballing fortunes have been severely damaged by the exits.

The core of several great Ethiopian national teams before independence consisted of Eritrean athletes, such as the team that won the 1962 African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Eight players, including team captain Luciano Vassallo, were from Ethiopia, the host nation, who went on to defeat Egypt 4-2 in the championship match.

Former Eritrean permanent representative to the UN Girma Asmerom was a standout forward for the Ethiopian squad that advanced to the 1968 AFCON semifinals.

Coach Dorian Marin of Romania guided the national squad as it made a strong push to qualify for the 2008 AFCON finals. Eritrea managed to win over Kenya in spite of the defections, and they were only four points away from qualifying.

Eritrea hosted and finished second in the 2010 CECAFA U-20 Cup, a competition for regional teams, which was another encouraging set of results. But similar to Marin’s charges, the squad disbanded in the following years as players took advantage of the chance to leave before it could have a significant effect at the senior level.

Other Eritrean football teams have also experienced defeats: five players from the Eritrean U-20 female team vanished from a regional qualifying match in Uganda in 2021, and the country’s local teams are no longer eligible to compete in the CAF African Champions League due to repeated desertion incidents during away games.

A few of Eritrea’s brightest young people are now refugees, residing in various parts of Europe or the US. Others are still waiting to be resettled in the African nations where they have relocated.

Players for the national team have previously talked about being physically assaulted, underfed, and threatened with gunfire while serving in the military.

One former player, who fled during the 2010s and is currently living in Europe, claims that “being a full international is a privilege in other countries, but not in Eritrea.” He was one of two football players in Europe who consented to speak with Al Jazeera, but under strict confidentiality because he still had relatives in Eritrea.

“You still needed permission to leave the military barracks, even just to visit my family at home,” he claims, “even as a national team player.” “In Eritrea, there was no future for us.”

Both athletes talked of living in constant terror of the Eritrean government, which has accused athletes who leave the country during contests of “betraying” their nation, years after they were relocated.

“Our families stay at home, and the government has agents and supporters everywhere,” the other player clarified. We hardly ever talk openly about politics or even the national team because you never know who to believe or who is listening. Players are not like other types of refugees. We may be easily identified.

According to both players, the national team’s withdrawal from the World Cup qualifiers was devastating.

“I love the game, so I’m not surprised, but it still hurts,” one of them remarked. “Watching our flag and listening to our anthem during a match against Morocco—who were incredible in Qatar [during the World Cup] last year—would have been fantastic.”

“Changes are needed,”

The Eritrean National Football Federation started hiring football players of Eritrean descent who were born in Europe and qualified for the Red Sea Camels in accordance with FIFA rules in 2017 in an effort to lessen desertions. This meant Daniel had to go back and forth between Asmara and several locations in Europe in order to find talent.

Mohammed Saeid, a former MLS League midfielder who was born in Sweden, joined the squad as a result of his efforts. Tedros “Golgol” Mebrahtu, a striker and former Australian youth international who was being recruited while playing in the Czech first division, also trailed behind.

The pair would join a squad led by former La Liga attacker Henok Goitom, a Swedish native. According to Daniel, administrative problems have prevented Eritrea from luring players like Alexander Isak, a standout for Newcastle United, away from Sweden in recent years.

However, the scout says that bringing in foreign players cannot take the place of skill developed in local league play.

“We can’t always hire the best players available, so we sometimes aim for amateur players,” he adds. “Recruiting foreign players only helps development in the short term.” “To prevent players from escaping, we need a professional league where players receive fair salaries.”

The 2025 African Cup of Nations is the next significant qualifying tournament that the remaining members of Eritrea’s national team—seven players vanished following the team’s final competitive participation in 2019—are expected to participate in. Whether the nation will take part is still up in the air.

The Eritrean National Football Federation’s president, Paulos Weldehaimanot Andemariam, did not reply to calls for comment from Al Jazeera.

Daniel, who has become disillusioned, has broken off his relationship with the federation and is blaming the government alone for the sport’s difficulties in his homeland.

He states, “I’ve been involved with the local federation for over a decade in various capacities.” “I do this out of love for Eritrea.” But I’m limited in what I can accomplish since the nation must first undergo reforms.

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