‘Soccer Team 1, Regime 0’: Eritrea tries again

On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey James Montague

Editor’s Note: CNN is serializing extracts from Thirty-One Nil, a new book from author James Montague, who traveled the globe documenting qualifying games for the World Cup. Here, Montague meets the Eritrean national team in Rwanda and a coach who last time they played away had to explain how he lost an entire team.

Chapter 4

November 2011. Kigali, Rwanda

The light is beginning to fade at the empty Amahoro Stadium. The rain is still falling in intermittent waves and I am still sitting in the dugout, waiting for the Eritrea team. The only arrival over the past two hours is a groundsman with a spade. He takes one look at the downpour and scurries back inside.

Just when it looks as if the stadium will be shut for the evening a handful of young men in blue tracksuit tops walk gingerly on to the pitch. The Eritrea team has arrived three hours late for training and 18 hours before kick-off. They got here as quickly as they could. Ethiopia would not grant, and neither would the Eritreans request, permission to fly over its territory. The team had to fly to Sudan instead and from there to Kigali.

Coach Negash Teklit, a tall, barrel-chested presence, gathers the team in the center circle. Under their tracksuits they are wearing a mismatch of training tops and English Premier League shirts. Negash has been their coach for 11 years and has seen team after team of players come and go. Unlike other national team coaches who have to deal with the orderly succession of one generation of players to the next, Negash builds teams from scratch.

Negash Teklit (center) and team at the Amahoro Stadium.

He was coach in 2009 when the entire team absconded after being knocked out of the CECAFA Cup in Kenya. Twelve of the players ended up at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Nairobi and claimed political asylum. Negash and a handful of officials had to fly home on their own and explain to the powers that be how he had managed to lose a football team.

The incident even made it to the diplomatic level. Among the trove of dispatches in the WikiLeaks archive was this fascinating secret cable purporting to be from the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Asmara.

Things are getting worse and worse in Eritrea. The regime is facing mounting international pressure for years of malign behavior in the neighborhood. 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... ‘He is sick,’ said one leading Eritrean businessman, referring to President Isaias’ mental health. ‘The worse things get, the more he tries to take direct control--it doesn’t work.’

The cable then goes on to list a series of crazy incidents highlighting the deteriorating situation in the country. One of them is the fate of the Eritrea national team.

Many dusty streets in Asmara are filled with urchins kicking an old sock stuffed with rags back and forth ...

Soccer team 1-0 Regime

Eritreans are mad about 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. Senior government and party officials are avid fans of the British[sic]Premier League and sometimes leave official functions early to catch key matches. Despite tight control of the domestic media, satellite TV dishes are allowed, probably so folks can watch international soccer. Impressive numbers of senior regime officials attended the World Cup pool draw reception thrown by the South Africa embassy last week.

Diaspora websites are reporting that the entire Eritrean national soccer team defected ... If true, this will be stunning news for the Eritrean population. Only the coach and an escorting colonel reportedly returned to Eritrea.(One wonders why, given their likely fate.)(President) Isaias has previously claimed the CIA was luring Eritrean youth abroad; if the soccer team has in fact defected, he will undoubted try to twist logic in some way to blame the United States.

And defect they did. After months in a refugee camp 11 of the players were granted political asylum in Australia. One decided to stay in Kenya. Negash Teklit now has a new team of young men to coach, so young in fact that they look like boys.

At the side of the pitch, Kahsay Embaye is watching training intently with his one working eye. “This team is far better than before because we have started to work on the grassroots level,” says the vice-president of the Eritrea National Football Federation, as if the defections were actually a handy opportunity to try out some new blood in the team. He is short, bald and wears a patch over his right eye. He lost it in 1979 during an operation to take a port from the Ethiopians. Embaye was a soldier for 17 years, retiring only after independence from Ethiopia was secured in 1993 and President Isaias Afewerki was inaugurated. Afewerki is still in power today.

There are no visible scars on Negash’s face or his hands. He had been deemed trustworthy enough to be allowed out of the country again, a rare honor. I ask him about 2009 and that incident.

“Ahhhh, hrumph,” he exhales, mincing the correct words in his mouth for a moment. “We have no problems with the players. Maybe some of the players are very childish to make the disappearance like that. But we have many players.”

He is shrugging his shoulders now, following the party line. It was actually a good thing the selfish players left. It is not just Eritrea’s problem, but one of African youth all over the world. They can emigrate from one country to another, chasing wealth. Eritrea doesn’t need them. Now there’s room for the new blood, new talent. “This generation, this team, is the best,” he says a touch defiantly. “This is a special one.” I almost believe him.

The Eritrean team in the tunnel before kick-off. They lost the game 3-1.

The real reason footballers and athletes defect from Eritrea at the first opportunity is much darker and more complex than envy, self-improvement, selfishness or poverty. Eritrea’s 30-year civil war with Ethiopia was led by a Marxist insurgent, schooled in the art of discipline, self-sacrifice and extreme loyalty. Isaias Afewerki led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to victory against the Ethiopians in 1991, and his new country was recognized by the U.N. two years later.

In power, Afewerki has proved to be a ruthless tyrant. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on Eritrea makes grim reading. It paints a picture of a country with zero civil society, zero democracy and zero accountability. Anyone who voices any opposition at all is labeled a traitor. They are thrown into jails and never heard of again. The few survivors who manage to escape tell horrific stories of journalists and opposition politicians being locked up for years in underground metal shipping containers buried in the desert in pitch darkness. When they eventually emerge, half mad, almost blind and crippled by the beatings, they seldom survive for more than a few months.

Eritrea is also on a constant war footing, ready for its next inevitable conflict against its former occupier Ethiopia. National conscription is meant to last for 18 months but, in reality, conscripts remain in the army for life, used as cheap labor for the government’s many business interests, especially gold mining.

“Prolonged service, harsh treatment, and starvation wages are principal reasons for the hundreds of monthly desertions,” the Human Rights Watch report concluded. “President Isaias said in 2010 that most deserters left for economic reasons or were ‘going on a picnic.’”

Prolonged service, harsh treatment and starvation wages are principal reasons for hundreds of monthly desertions.

It is this fear, of ending up in a shipping container in the desert or in the looping, perpetual nightmare of conscription that forces thousands of people a year to flee, or die trying.

According to Human Rights Watch, “despite a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy for anyone caught trying to cross the country’s borders, thousands of refugees pour out of Eritrea to Sudan and Ethiopia”.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 2010 that, according to one estimate, close to 2,000 Eritreans escaped over the border every month. As many as 50,000 refugees were living in Ethiopian refugee camps. One-third of them were military deserters.

No one knows how many Eritreans are shot dead before they make it, or how many are vaporized crossing the minefields that ring the country. There may be discussions on the nature of freedom in Kagame’s Rwanda, but the young men of the Eritrean team – feeling the wind and the rains on their face in Kigali as they trained – would never have tasted anything freer than this.

Copyright James Montague, 2014. From Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey, published by Bloomsbury in the UK at £12.99 from May 22, 2014.