Fri. Jun 14th, 2024

The football World Cup is the biggest sporting extravaganza on the planet. Teams participate in qualifiers across continents to make it to the tournament proper. It’s tough, it is not easy. Take India’s example, the most populous country now has never played in the World Cup, and what they wouldn’t give to get an opportunity! So, playing in the World Cup is no small feat. However, there is a country that has pulled out of the qualifiers recently and it has made many exclaim: “What the hell? Why?”

Players battle for the ball during a match | Image for representation (AP)

Eritrea, a north-east African country on the Red Sea coast with an estimated population of around 3.7 million, shocked one and all earlier this month when they withdrew from the qualifiers for the 2026 edition around a week before their opening match against hosts Morocco. But this was not the first time they did such a thing.

Last year, they withdrew from the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. So, a question springs to mind: why would they do that? It’s a story that’s intriguing and gripping at once. It actually goes all the way back to 1993 when it gained independence from Ethiopia.

It has been a single-party country since, with President Isaias Afwerki at the helm right from day one. It’s a totalitarian state and the United Nations has often lamented that the human rights situation in there is getting worse and worse by the day. By all accounts, repression is in the air and that’s what people breathe there.

A great many people want to leave the country for good and that fact lies at the centre of its current football woes. Eritrea is a highly militarized society and the government has been a proponent of military training for all. Random arrests, torture and disappearance of individuals are part of the fabric.

“The authorities also punish draft evaders by proxy, for example by imprisoning a parent or a spouse in order to force them to surrender themselves. I also received reports about the conscripts who were killed as they tried to escape from Tigray or from military training centres in Eritrea,” a UN special rapporteur noted in his report last year.

The authoritarian regime fears that the Eritrea-based players may not return to the country. They were slated to play five away matches in Morocco, the Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Niger in their group. If truth be told, the regime’s concerns are not entirely misplaced. Over the years, there have been many cases of Eritrean players disappearing during or after a football event in countries like Botswana, Uganda and Kenya.

In fact, as many as 10 Eritrean football players were granted asylum by Botswana in 2015. Born in Orebro, Sweden to refugee parents, 32-year-old midfielder Mohammed Khalid Saeid is understandably frustrated. He belongs to the Eritrean diaspora and made his debut for the African country in 2019 in a World Cup qualifier against Namibia. He has not played since for his national team. Eritrea has not played much either. The last time they were seen in action was in a friendly against Sudan in early 2020, weeks before Covid-19 took on epic proportions.

“…I feel so frustrated because there are a lot of players coming through right now with Eritrean backgrounds, many playing around Europe. We could compete if given a chance but when they see what is happening, will they really want to represent Eritrea in the future?”

Saeid, who plays for Swedish club Trelleborg, told BBC Sport Africa. It’s indeed a Catch-22 situation for the Eritrean regime. If they let players travel, abscondment will keep happening and if they don’t allow travel, their football will suffer. And it’s highly unlikely the dictatorship will change its ways. The Eritrean National Football Federation is in a fix at present. However, there is one way that can salvage things a bit for

Eritrean football. It is understood that the ENFF is planning to field a team made up of its diaspora players in their future football matches so that the threat of defection on the African continent is no longer there. This – as and when it happens – will save Eritrean football but will kill its soul since there will be no Eritrea-based players to speak of, and how much local fans will be able to relate to them there is no knowing. The situation is really grim as of now but there is no end in sight to all this, just like the repression in the country.

By admin

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