Soccer in Eritrea during colonialism: The challenges and fortitude of the Eritrean players

Articles - Q & A

Although internationally Eritrea has made a name for itself in cycling and athletics, Eritreans are fond of soccer and did see their heydays in the past. Eritreans kept the love of the sport and gave it their best undeterred by the challenges of colonial rule.

As the Eritrean under-20 national football team prepares to play against its Tanzanian counterpart tomorrow, Q&A feels it is timely to present a brief interview on the earlier history of Eritrean soccer.

Today, we invite Mr. Teklit Lijam to talk about his book “Soccer in Eritrea” that covers the period from 1936 to 1975. To gather relevant information for his manuscript Mr. Teklit consulted newspapers and magazines published in Italian at the time. He also interviewed a number of families of former soccer players to collect detailed information on how soccer began and continued during the unbearable colonial times. As not much has been written on the earlier history of Eritrean soccer, this book does a lot in documenting the history.

  • -Thank you for making the time to be with us today, Mr. Teklit. You have published a book on the history of soccer in Eritrea during colonialism. What can you tell us about it?

Thank you for having me on your page. In 1998, I published a book about the history of world cup in which I got many thoughts. That motivated me to come up with this book about the history of soccer during colonialism. But I couldn’t do it right away as i understood that the book was going to require full commitment. And that wasn’t until I retired from my UNDP office in New-york. I believed that it was best to be in the place where it all happened while researching the history of soccer.

I started my research with the support of many individuals and governmental bodies. I was given an office at the research and documentation center of the PFDJ where I did most of my studying from the different Italian, Amharic, English and Tigrigna papers published during the time. However, the information I got from the papers couldn’t be enough, I also had to go search for the people who took part in soccer or their families to add accurate information and photos.

  • -Your studies tell that despite the constant challenges, soccer was growing to become eminent in Eritrea. What can you say about that?

Just like everything else, Eritreans weren’t allowed to play soccer at first. Soccer was a game just for the Italians. Eritreans weren’t allowed to watch the games normally; they had to climb walls or trees to watch the Italians play.

Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when the Italians suddenly allowed the locals to play soccer and form teams. In 1936, the first Eritrean soccer teams were established -- Aridiata, Hamsien, Savoya, Vitoria, Eritrea and Asmara. Those six teams were formed with the local residents and were under the Italian soccer federation. Those teams had their games under the guidance of Italian referees. As expected, all the games were watched by the Italians which were a challenge for the local teams to grow. Under the British rule, the teams continued to bloom even though they had to face various challenges similar to that under the Italian rule. An Eritrean team was obilged to play against five Italian soccer teams as the Italians were still the soccer federation. But Eritrean players had the greatest ambition in soccer and they were able to have a big number of excited fans.

During the Ethiopian rule, the Eritrean teams were shining even brighter. For instance, when Ethiopia became the African Champion in 1962, eight of the players were Eritreans.

Eritrean soccer teams had intense fan base that brought them together. Whenever the national team had games, the fans were routing for political involvement and the long struggle for their freedom through sport.

  • -As someone who spent a lot of time at the documentation center, how well is our history of soccer documented. Were you satisfied with the information you were able to acquire?

Well, many articles were published in the Italian newspapers regarding the soccer games and teams. They were well written and in depth, which allowed me to write all the names of the players at the specific game and the scores.

  • -You have published the second edition of “Soccer in Eritrea” during the colonial times 1936- 1975. What changes did you make?

The second edition was made by the request of many readers. In this book, I added ten photos and made minor changes in addition to some information and editing. But most importantly, I was able to include names and photos of people that were missing in the first edition. I got many calls and messages from individuals and families after they read the book, telling me the names and information about the people in the book. It was very helpful.

  • -Mr. Teklit, would you tell us about the youth soccer teams in diaspora you, alongside other interested Eritreans, started?

When we first started the teams, we gathered the Eritrean youth from Washington, New-York and Boston. In 1986 and 1988 we participated at the Eritrean Festival in Bologna, Italy, which was unusual as the festival was for Eritreans in Europe. With time the soccer teams have grown in number. There are around 20 teams which participate in a tournament annually.

  • -Thank you, Mr. Teklit. Is there anything you would like to add before we say goodbye?

I would like to thank every single person who extended help in the making of this book. I also would like to appreciate people who gave me comments and criticism after reading it. I am grateful to the director of the Research and Documentation Center, Mrs. Azieb Tewelde. Again, to every person who was kind enough to give me the photos that I needed, especially Mr. Samuel Tekle. Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you. To the Eritrean community in Oakland, a heartfelt thanks for the support they gave me during my seminar in September 2018. Also, to the Ministry of Information I am forever grateful. Thank you for having me.