“In January you wrote to me a letter. You invited me to come to Eritrea. In the letter, you said that together we’ll make a difference. In February, here I am! Dear all and friends, indeed, together we will make a difference” said Gianni Infantino addressing Mr. Isayas Abrha, President of the Eritrean Football Federation, when invited to deliver a speech in a luncheon hosted by the Commission of Sport and Culture.
Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA, came for a one day visit to Eritrea yesterday the 23rd of February 2018. Amongst his African supporters, he is known for one of his presidency’s main aims, extending the quota of African countries participating in the World Cup. Infantino, with his one day trip to Asmara, has gained massive support from Eritrean football enthusiasts now that he’s made public his willingness to assist the growth of Eritrean football.
- Welcome to Eritrea Mr. Infantino. Thank you for making time for us. For starters, please tell us the motive behind your visit to Eritrea?
I am here in Eritrea because I want to encourage the new President of the Eritrean National Football Federation. But I am also here as a testimony that for FIFA there are no big or small countries. That there is no difference between countries of the west, east, north or south. What matters to FIFA the most is football alone.
Football is played everywhere in Eritrea. It is actually an extremely loved sport, and for this reason I wanted to come personally to sit and discuss with the federation and see how we can assist the growth of football in Eritrea.
- I know it might be too much to ask, but can you please share with us a summary of what you talked about with the President of the State of Eritrea?
We had a very positive and constructive discussion on how we want to develop the game. Obviously what we all agreed on is the fact that there is a lot of talent and a lot of passion in this country. What we need the most is a well-defined structure around the sport. I talk of structure in terms of organization, and this is to be supervised by the football federation. But then also in terms of the infrastructure and, of course, the idea to spread the assistance to all regions of the country, at least at grassroots level, equally for boys and girls. We talked of ways to spread the attention in inclusive ways, in possibly all parts of the country. Like ,for example, through schools. And I would like to mention that I got a lot of support by the President of Eritrea.
- Did you have any prior knowledge about Eritrea? And specifically the history of football in Eritrea?
I knew just a little bit about Eritrea. I knew that football together with cycling have a long history in Eritrea. As far as I am concerned, football is a historic game in Eritrea. And I knew that, historically, football was extremely successful. For example, the 1963, then Ethiopian National team that won the African Nation’s Cup, out of its 11 players nine were Eritreans. Now, our conviction is that we can very well revive the success history of Eritrean football. Of course, much work will be needed. We will have to start from grassroots level but the support and devotion I have seen is just so great.
- One of the goals you set out for your presidential term was to increase the number of African countries participating in the World Cup. And also a focus on underdeveloped countries. Why did you make this a priority? And, so far, is your plan as successful as you envisioned it to be?
Successful or not it’s up to others to say. For me, obviously, it has been successful as I can see the impact it had and it’s having. In a continent like Africa, where almost in all of the countries, there is a true love for football, but then again, expertise, infrastructure and equipment are still missing, I think there is great need for us to do a lot more. As part of the plan we proposed, for example, to increase the numbers of teams that’ll participate in the World Cup from the previous quota of five to nine fixed teams and a half team for playoffs. But we do have similar plans for the youth and female teams as well. The problem is that the current figure in terms of the teams’ quantity was based on history. Historically, football developed much earlier in Europe and South America and, therefore, it is very difficult to change the path, but still, I believe, we need to increase our concentration and involve more.
We are making real good changes. We appointed the very first female African Secretary General in the history of FIFA from Senegal, Fatima Samoura. We also have increased the number of members in our executive council, so we now, there are three more African members. The most important element though is that we increased the development fund. In the case of Africa, we passed from the 27 million USD FIFA was investing before my time to 100 million USD every year. This is very important as it helps countries who have financial problems and can’t fund sports. It is also very important for countries who have other national priorities. It is a way to relieve the burden of governments and help them create the necessary infrastructure football requires. And all together, FIFA, Federations and Governments we can make a difference by working together.
- Is there a reason why you sympathize with underdeveloped countries? Any personal reasons maybe.
I sympathize with the passion. I grew up as an Italian immigrant to Switzerland. As a child, my friends and I had little Italian football teams trying to organize football games on our own with the very little we had. Now in Europe football is extremely professionalized. However, when I come to Africa I see the most genuine form of football. It reminds me of my old days. I think the passion in Africa needs to be motivated.
- Your stay in Eritrea was rather short, but I hope it’s been fruitful. How was it?
It was short, yes, but it was very intense. I discovered a beautiful country I didn’t know of before. I discovered a little Italy in the architecture of Asmara. I discovered a warm population, very welcoming and hospitable. They seem very happy, smiley and extremely proud of their identity. I discovered a country that all in all is worthwhile working with.
- Mr. Infantino, do you have any words for the Eritrean youth involved in football, to whom, as I am quite certain, your visit to Eritrea is of major encouragement?
Play football. Day and night, be glad to be playing your favorite sport. That’s the most important thing and the rest will be just fine.