Ed Aarons and Alex Cizmic
Tuesday November 14, 2023
Eritrea at the Cecafa Cup in 2019 in Uganda. Seven players went missing after helping Eritrea reach the final and remain in hiding. Photograph: Darren McKinstry/Alamy
Eritrea’s football federation withdrew its men’s team from 2026 World Cup qualifying owing to fears that players would attempt to seek political asylum during trips abroad, according to sources close to the squad.The Eritrean National Football Federation (ENFF) has yet to comment but it is understood that domestic‑based players had been preparing for the opening two games of their qualifying campaign for three months before being informed at the end of October that they would not be taking part. Some ENFF members are believed to have attempted to convince the ministry of sport and culture to give the team the go‑ahead to play but it was refused by Zemede Tekle, the commissioner for sports and culture commissioner, who supervises the federation.
A joint statement from Fifa and the Confederation of African Football (Caf) on Friday said that “all of Eritrea’s matches have been cancelled”, a few days before they had been due to travel to face Morocco in their first fixture, but provided no explanation.
According to several sources close to the squad, the main reason is to prevent players from taking advantage of the national team’s overseas fixtures to escape and request political asylum from the oppressive regime of the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, which imposes lifetime military service on many subjects.
“This is heartbreaking,” one source said. “They are killing Eritrean football. It’s not easy for the players to ask for an explanation. They may send you to jail for protesting. You can just wait and see what they decide.”
The Guardian contacted the ENFF president, Paulos Weldehaymanot, but he did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2009 it is estimated that more than 60 players have used their status as internationals to seek asylum, with the most recent case involving five female players who fled hours before their game against the hosts Uganda in the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa) Women’s Under-20 Championship in November 2021.
Seven male players – Abel Okbay Kilo, Eyoba Girmay, Yosief Mebrahtu, Filmon Serere, Robel Kidane, Abraham and Ismail Jahar – went missing in Uganda after helping Eritrea to reach the Cecafa Cup final for the first time in December 2019 and remain in hiding. Four under‑20 internationals – Hanibal Tekle, Mewael Yosief, Simon Asmelash and Hermon Yohannes – fled after Eritrea’s 5-0 win against Zanzibar in the quarter-finals of the Under-20 Cecafa Cup in Uganda in October 2019.
Eritrea – who had been due to face Morocco, Zambia, Congo, Tanzania and Niger in World Cup qualifying – have not played since a friendly against Sudan in January 2020 and their most recent competitive game was a 2022 World Cup qualifier in September 2019. They no longer have a Fifa ranking having not played a match in the past 48 months, with all fixtures having to take place away from home owing to the lack of a stadium in Eritrea that meets Caf requirements to host international matches.
“The problem for Eritrean government officials is that they have to play 10 games abroad,” said Daniel Solomon, the founder of the Eritrean Football website, who had planned his trip to Morocco. “It’s not a single round-trip match like in the preliminary rounds. It’s too much to handle for them. I booked a ticket for nothing. Eritrean fans have to wait another few years again for competitive football thanks to the mismanagement of Eritrea’s regime.”
Solomon says that Eritrea have some talented players, with Ali Sulieman Salih and Robel Teclemichael Bahta playing in Ethiopia’s first division. It has been unusual to see Eritrean footballers playing abroad, albeit in neighbouring Ethiopia, because the Afwerki regime does not easily grant the possibility of leaving the country.
“Teclemichael had offers from China, but due to Covid-19 nothing happened,” Solomon says. “If Eritrea were playing the 2030 World Cup qualifiers, these players would be 27. They are wasting their golden years, the opportunity to be seen on the international stage and be purchased by other clubs. Our neighbours Yemen and Somalia, which are experiencing conflicts in their countries, managed to have a team and play. Why can’t we do the same?”