Where Soccer Has Been a One-Way Ticket Out
Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Author: By JAMES MONTAGUE
Story date: 15/11/2011
Language: English

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 a 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."
 

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