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Where Soccer Has Been a One-Way Ticket Out

By JAMES MONTAGUE The New York Times: KIGALI, Rwanda — In the fading light and steady rain at Amahoro Stadium, the Eritrea national soccer team trained in silence Monday as it prepared for one of its

The New York Times: KIGALI, Rwanda — In the fading light and steady rain at Amahoro Stadium, the Eritrea national soccer team trained in silence Monday as it prepared for one of its most important matches since securing independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

The team, known as the Red Sea Boys and ranked 190th by FIFA, will face Rwanda on Tuesday in the second leg of their 2014 World Cup preliminary qualifier. If Eritrea wins, it will advance to the second round, a group stage.

But the most important number after the match may not be how many goals Eritrea scores, but how many of its players are on the plane back home.

This is the first time Eritrea has played away from home in two years. The last time the national team left Eritrea, for a regional tournament in Kenya in 2009, the entire team disappeared after a match, later claiming asylum at Nairobi’s United Nations High Commission for Refugees before being resettled in Australia.

Eritrea is considered among the most repressive countries in the world. The players’ defections gained attention internationally after a diplomatic cable titled “Eritrea’s squabbling colonels, fleeing footballers, frightened librarians” and dated Dec. 15, 2009, was released by Wikileaks. In it, the United States ambassador Ronald K. McMullen wrote: “Human rights abuses are commonplace and most young Eritreans, along with the professional class, dream of fleeing the country, even to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan.”

A 2011 report on Eritrea by Human Rights Watch described how torture remained routine, how the continual state of conscription has destroyed the economy, and how up to 50,000 Eritreans live in Ethiopian refugee camps.

Athletes are among the few who can leave the country legally. But many do not return. In July, 13 players from Eritrea’s top club Red Sea fled in Tanzania. Four players from the same team defected while playing in Kenya in 2006.

“Yes, something must be mended and we are trying to find out the cause,” said Kahsay Embaye, the vice president of Eritrea’s soccer federation. “But sometimes it is also a conspiracy by some people who are abroad.”

In a section called “Soccer Team 1-Regime 0,” the diplomatic cable described reports of the players’ defections, and said that President Isaias Afewerki would “undoubtedly try to twist logic in some way to blame the United States” for the players’ leaving.

But the cable also described the small country’s passion for soccer. “Many dusty streets in Asmara are filled with urchins kicking an old sock stuffed with rags back and forth between goals made of piled stones,” the cable said. “Senior government and party officials are avid fans of the British Premier League and sometimes leave official functions early to catch key matches.”

Of the 12 players who defected, 11 went to Adelaide, Australia. Local soccer clubs arranged for four of them to share a house and arranged local jobs for them. Nevi Gebremeskel, a 21-year-old defender who just finished his season playing for White City Woodville, a team in the South Australian Premier League, said that the Eritrean soccer officials led him to flee, not the government.

“We need to play and we had a big problem with the federation,” he said in a telephone interview. “If anyone got the chance to go overseas, any team from any country, they didn’t allow them to go.”

Speaking of the day the players defected, Gebremeskel said they had a meeting after the team finished the tournament in Kenya.

“We were all having the same thoughts, so we had the big meeting,” he said. “Yes, I was scared. “We didn’t have anything when we left. All we had was our kit.”

Negash Teklit, the team’s coach, smiled awkwardly when the defections were mentioned. Teklit, a former star of the Ethiopian national team before Eritrea gained independence, has coached the team for 11 years and was in charge at that tournament in 2009.

“This problem is not Eritrean only,” he said. “This is a problem of African youths all over the world. They can immigrate from one country to another.”

He added: “We have many players still. This generation and especially this team is the best team.”

The team had to be rebuilt from scratch. A team of teenagers, picked from Eritrea’s under-17 and under-20 squads, train in the jerseys of their heroes from England, France and Italy.

Eritrea’s young team has managed to compete. The first leg against Rwanda, played at altitude in Asmara, ended in 1-1 draw.

Teklit said that the federation learned its lesson and that some players were allowed to play professionally in a handful of friendly countries to avoid any more embarrassing defections.

“We make the players go out and get professional exposure in Qatar, Sudan, Kuwait,” he said. He added: “We need the players to play at home first and not to hold them. But if they want to go, they can go.”

Tuesday’s game is the first litmus test of Eritrea’s new policy. Embaye, the federation vice president, remains confident that after the game with Rwanda, all of the 18 members of the squad will return home.

“That is 100 percent sure,” he said.

In Adelaide, Gebremeskel follows the national team. He said his fellow Eritrean players, two of whom play for Gold Coast United, one of Australia’s top professional teams, were still friends and had built a community around their shared experiences. He said he was convinced that more ambitious soccer players would follow the path he and his teammates forged.

“Life is very good here, very, very good,” Gebremeskel said. “Everyone is happy to live. If you need to work, you can work.

“Even tomorrow, after the game, the same thing is going to happen. Everyone has the right to a new life. I don’t think they’ll come back.”

Review overview
  • PFDJ(Popular Front for Dictatorship and Jail) November 17, 2011

    why you all live in the dream of Nightmare…
    why dont u debate based on facts, trues rather than..Ajew jewwwww…
    by far you almost have the same fashion..
    who is most Enemy of Eritrea? as you lecture as … Ethiopia,USA, UN,AU….
    but you are liars…. now everyone knows everything..
    even Ethiopia is not our enemy, our enemy is HGDEF mendef, know that in Ethiopia a lot of our people are getting a chance to learn starting from primary to university. so by any means Ethiopia is not our enemy.
    and my final point, please debate based on facts and modernized ways…. HGDEF mendef stop oppressing our people

    • HGDF November 17, 2011

      You don’t even know what fact means. Are you defending Ethiopia? Go kiss their foot. We know what the Ethiopian regime is trying to do to Eritrea if it gets the chance. Don’t tell us they are doing a favor to us because they are accepting deserters. They are doing it to make all Eritrean youth leave their country. And we know how many of those who make their way to Ethiopia get the chance to study or work there. How can you deny that every one is just using Ethiopia and sudan as a passage to the West. If Ethiopia is giving them so much opportunities why are they leaving it and risk their lives to cross the sea or on the sinai desert? You guys were telling us that the youth are risking their lives because the situation in the neighboring countries was also unbearable. And now you say Ethiopia is giving them every opportunity. who could risk his life if he gets all the best for his life in Ethiopia like you said. We know in what situation the people in the refugee camps in Ethiopia are living. The people who make their way there and have no any chance out are regreting their decision to go there and some are risking their lives trying any means out of there. People like you are trying to decive more innocent young people to go out by saying “in Ethiopia you get every thing you need”.

  • gasha November 17, 2011


    if you are eritrean weather you like it or not pia is your leader.
    but if you are demon you are on your own you dont have to worry about pia.

  • truly, Truly i say to you November 17, 2011

    Gasha, how could you tell me DIA is my president? Since he neither by me nor by other by public elected?
    Sorry, I couldn´t respect and say to anyone self appointed dictator his my representative or president. Maybe to your interest before your friend Kosami started quoting the bible verses corruptedly, let me share you what the bible advices us. Ofcourse the bible advices us in many places, “ people to submit to state authorities and rulers even to pray for them ( Titus 3; 1) but this it doesn´t apply to self appointed dictators like Isayas, or Gadafi or Sadam Hussein, but it applies to democratically and by publicly elected rulers only. That is why I disobey to listen such dictators.

  • gasha November 17, 2011

    The bible said when you pray do it
    to yourself you dont have to tell the whole world. And the bible say
    1 Timothy 2:1-2:
    1. I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. As you make your requests, plead for God’s mercy upon them, and give thanks. 2. Pray this way for kings and all others who are in authority, so that we can live in peace and quietness, in godliness and dignity.

  • truly, Truly i say to you November 18, 2011

    Gasha, you not need to repeat the quote again and again, I already told you above, worthless self appointed dictators like Isayas, Gadafi and Alikes they don´t deserve, submission, respect and pray. This is written weather they good or bad atleast to those publicly and democratically elected rulers including PM Meles Zenawi only. Gadafi, and Sadam Husein they already got it what they deserved, Isayas is the only remains. But don´t worry he will follow also soon. His fate will be worst than his friend Gadafi. I know how much you disturbed because I sayed if Meles was my president, I will pray and submit for him. The reason is simple. First, he is constitutionally ,democratically publicly elected president. Second he has a passion to think like normal human being. Imagine how many times he gave Marcy to his political arch-enemies? Like Birtukan Mideksa,and Seye Abreha, etc ? Even last week he released 20 Derg detainees. Those they should to be deserved death penalty. What about your devil leader? He imprisoned and systematically killed, those whole life deserved hero citizens without any rule of low and mercy. The bible says forgiveness is to those forgive others only (Lukas, 6;37) in otherword “ For God will not show mercy when he judges the person who has not been merciful; but mercy triumphs over judgement. James( yakob) 2;13

  • diana gual gejeret November 18, 2011

    To assenna
    May you never heard the news or you dont want to know about this news that the eritrean horoes the WARSAYS cyclist of erutrean won the 7th championship of africa. Again like last year in ruwanda this year in our capital city asmara WE ARE THE CHAMP!!! How can you don´t write about this great news? Even the new york times wrote about it. This day is the great day of the eritrean. This glory is for all inside and out side of eritreans who wish all the best things of the people and land of eritrea. Now we understand that you are against of the people of eritrea. You wish all the bad things of eritreans.
    congra eritreans and SHAEBIA!!!