The first things a new nation needs are a football team and an army. The last thing it needs is for either to disappear overnight and it’s an embarrassment to Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, that all 12 members of the national squad should have dumped their strip in the wheelie-bins at the back of their hotel during a CECAFA tournament in Kenya and vanished without further ado. ‘Cazzo,’ I hear the Eritrean leadership whispering to itself. ‘But at least we’ve still got the army.’
The trouble is that the army – or rather military service – is one of the reasons so many Eritreans want to get out. (The UN puts the monthly emigration figures in the low hundreds.) Another is poverty, another is the angular, repressive style of the regime, which hasn’t changed its ways since it got control of the liberation struggle in the mid-1970s.
Military service is supposed to alleviate joblessness and put people to work repairing the country after 30 years of war. In fact it’s very close to forced labour, slaving on roads and bridges for a pittance. Then too, the Eritreans, who were such dogged fighters when they went up against Ethiopia, have leapt at any opportunity to spat with their neighbours. Arguments with Sudan, with Yemen, with Ethiopia above all – so the army-shovel still gets put to the time-honoured business of digging trenches.
Have the Red Sea Boys, as the Eritrean team is known, done national service? Is it still in the offing for some of them? I’ve no idea. But the way Eritrea is run, anyone who kicks a ball around for his country is under orders, and not just from the manager.
During the war with Ethiopia, I saw a couple of football matches between groups of Eritrean fighters assigned to different parts of the front. They’d come down from their positions, put away their guns and lined up for a friendly. The women’s team from Den-Den – a mountain trenchline much contested with Soviet-backed Ethiopia – were slow in midfield, and so was the opposition, which is probably why the spectators had a good view of the game. When it was the men’s turn, their hyperactive coming and going churned so much dust into the air that you never got a grip of the unfolding drama. My informed guess at the result: blokes-in-general one (for effort), visibility nil. That’s better than the Eritrean national squad has done since independence. Dakar 1995: Ghana five, Eritrea nil. Luanda 2007: Angola six, Eritrea one.
The latest news of the defecting footballers is that they’ve claimed asylum in Kenya. Which is a further embarrassment, worse than the squad’s plane arriving home in Asmara with two passengers, the manager and coach. Their last result before they ran for cover: a four-nil defeat by Tanzania. Time for a change. Wouldn’t victory be certain – and ranks hold firm for the glory of the nation – if the Eritrean minister of sports dispatched a couple of army battalions to take part in the next African tournament? They’re good at kicking up a bit of dust. But what if they defected? Cazzo.