Thursday evening, pubs around Asmara’s famous Harnet Avenue are filled with youngsters discussing their team’s line ups-as if they are the ones who make the final decisions-and chatting about the headlines making the Football websites leading up to the matches.
The once-every-four-years hosted football World Cup — the most-watched sports tournament on the planet — started on Thursday in the world’s biggest country. Despite calls for a boycott, cost overruns and security jitters, it could become Russia’s biggest-ever international event. Russia has come face to face with the world, on a scale both intimate and grand.
It is little wonder many within the game, not to mention so many supporters, describe the night before the World Cup as “like Christmas Eve”. There’s still nothing like it in all of sport. It is the great festival of football, set on the vibrant stage of the host country, with its extreme popularity across the expanse of the globe giving it a uniquely universal audience. To put it another way, it becomes the centre of the world for a month. To quote the FIFA President Gianni Infantino, “Football will conquer Russia and from Russia; Football will conquer the world.” Just by watching the matches we’re all part of the show, in a way nothing else in the modern world can quite match. Big World Cup fixtures fill the lists of the most-watched broadcasts in countries across the globe.
For ninety minutes of football 22 men on the Television or Cinema Screens take center stage and for once brothers are not brothers and friends are not friends, all for a good reason and for fun, of course. Your friends are the 11 players on the pitch. One or two bad words fly towards one or two players who play bad on the day, all in the hope that you wouldn’t have to submit your pride to your friends by the end of the game.
Football is an important means for people to form and maintain strong friendships that might otherwise not exist. These social bonds between fans are so strong that many describe them in familial, kinship terms — ‘my brotherhood’ or ‘my family’. ‘Football friends’ are different from friends in other areas of life. Something special is shared and exchanged by them. The football team is also a ‘friend’ to many fans. Over half of all fans feel that being a fan of the team is like having a long-term girlfriend/ boyfriend.
A friend of mine once told me with pure passion he would never miss a game to go out on a date and said his football team came first. I don’t even remember how the conversation came up in the first place.
In Eritrea, football plays a key role in family life, linking the shared experiences of family members across generations and creating a lasting sense of tradition and belonging. The strongest of these relationships is that of father and son. Most men become fans because their father would watch games with his children, and many older fans still retain strong memories of these formative experiences. As football fandom is socially inherited within the family, the passion for football is a unifying event that frequently leads to animated conversations at home in front of the television or around the family dinner table. The role that football plays in this context is very important given fears about the breakdown of the traditional family unit and its values across Eritrea.
There is a strong commonality among all fans in Eritrea— football unites rather than divides in this sense. The specific social and cultural role that football plays in any given country, however, is heavily influenced by historical factors. These include whether a major side or national team has won an important tournament at a decisive time in the past or whether the sport was traditionally played by upper or lower classes.
For instance, Eritrea’s football history during colonization was highly politicized. The very name of the teams was used as a fertile ground for the Ethiopian colonialists to prompt internal conflicts among Eritreans. The situation in 1974 is a case in point. Embasoira, playing in Addis Ababa against its arch rival Saint George of Shewa, had win to snatch the cup. Hamasien, playing in Asmara against Electric of Shewa, had to win by a margin of six goals to win the cup. What happened was, Embasoira won two to one and Hamasien, God knows how, scored six goals in the second half. This incident was a happy end for the Ethiopian colonialist regime as the fans of the two teams confronted each other, including through violence.
Having witnessed the ill-fated outcome Eritrean Liberation fighters started to put fliers around Asmara advising people of the immoral Plans of the regime. As a result most players of that era left and joined the armed struggle, while some went to exile.
When the Derg came to power, intimidation and harassment within football reached a boiling point. Asmara Stadium became a battle ground between local teams and teams representing the Ethiopian army and police. Before a match day Eritrean players had to stay at relatives places for security reasons.
Despite the harsh environment, Eritrean players throve at the sport and were the back bone of the Ethiopian national team that won the African Cup of Nations in 1962. To this day, images of those games are deeply entrenched in the minds of our grandfathers and fathers and have promoted a sentiment of togetherness within the Eritrean football community.
During the world cup, there’s the purer enchantment brought by the wall-to-wall football of the group stages, the colour of the kits and the venues, the excitement of new players and teams, and then the magic of high-stakes moments that mean sudden death or immortality.
With its mortifications and sense of worldwide communion, the World Cup is a kind of global religion. It is a form of soft diplomacy and a safe outlet for nationalism. For many fans, it is a potent quadrennial madeleine, each tournament summoning memories of previous ones, the lost friends with whom they were watched, past selves. Sometimes the football itself can be cagey and boring. But, especially on its biggest stage and canvas, sometimes football is art. Individual moves can be balletic, a team’s routines exquisitely choreographed. Grand narratives unfold and crescendo, tragedies and unlikely triumphs feature heroes, villains and occasionally players who contrive to be both.
Just as players will still inevitably measure their careers by World Cups, so many people measure their lives by World Cups, with personal moments forever anchored emotionally to great tournament moments.
The mere mention of epic events like Maradona’s second, Paul Gascoigne’s tears, Roberto Baggio’s miss, Zinedine Zidane’s headers and headbutt, Ronaldo’s redemption, Iniesta’s winner and that seismic 7-1 will make so many instantly remember where they were and what was going on for them at that time.
Looking back, the 1998 world cup made me fall in love with football. I was seven years old then, and at the final Zidane majestically rose to the air not only once but twice to score two goals, which sent me crying to bed because Brazil lost. The 2002 world cup that brought redemption from Ronaldinho’s mesmeric free kick that sent England crushing out of the world cup to Ronaldo’s two goal that won them the final was pure footballing ecstasy; football by then was part of my daily life. Four years later, I saw Zidane in the final use his head this time around not to score a goal but to head-butt an opponent to the ground. I gasped in shock with the entire world. In 2010, football’s greatest competition came to Africa. By then I was in my first year of college and had just lost an important member of my family. Football, in a way, was healing. In the final, I saw one of my all-time favorite players, Iniesta, volley the ball into the net. In 2014 another of my favorite players- Messi made it to the final, only to lose 1-0 to Germany.
For the players, it is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity. It is something Lionel Messi has become so obsessed with that he has over the last few months been scrutinizing the smallest details of how the Argentina team works, to the point of sending manager Jorge Sampaoli tactical suggestions as they occur to him. The 30-year-old knows well the significance of this summer, but his desire to finish it in glory goes far deeper than anything like his own legacy. It is much more innate. His great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, feels the same, while a past champion like Andres Iniesta says he will “face it like it is my first”. Raheem Sterling and many of the England squad have meanwhile admitted to daydreaming about what it would be like to land back home with that unique trophy.
Those two arms on the trophy “stretching out to receive the world… at the stirring moment of victory” – in the words of designer Silvio Gazzinaga – are so representative in more ways than one. This is what everyone in the game is ultimately reaching for: immortality.