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The People’s Game

Football is a way of life in Eritrea. During evenings on the weekend, Asmara is filled with people of all ages wearing jerseys of the team they support. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona (I have six), and Real Madrid. A foreigner could be forgiven for assuming that the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga had shifted headquarters. However, this is just an ordinary weekend in Asmara and Eritrea, in particular.

On Friday evenings, pubs around Asmara’s famous Harnet Avenue are filled with young males discussing their team’s line-ups for the upcoming matches. It is almost as if they are the ones who will make the final decisions. Football websites are also followed closely during the week leading up to matches.

Saturday arrives and the games commence. Expectations are high, people are on the edge of their seats, and friendly bets – with dinner or drinks being put on the line – are made. The superstitious – which most football fans tend to be – are going through their usual routine as the players take to the pitch.

For 90 minutes, 22 men take centre stage. For once, brothers are not brothers and friends are not friends. But it’s all for a good reason, of course. Your friends are the 11 players on the pitch. One or two unkind words are directed at players who are underperforming. The fans, young and old alike, share hopes of securing bragging rights for the week come the end of the game.

Football allows people to form and maintain friendships that might otherwise not exist. These social bonds between fans are so strong that many describe them in familial, kinship terms, such as “my brotherhood” or “my family”. “Football friends” are different to friends from other areas of life. Something special is shared and exchanged amongst them. The football team is also a “friend” for many fans. Over half of football fans feel that being a fan of the team is like having a long-term girlfriend or boyfriend. A friend of mine once told me with that he would never miss a game to go out on a date. Without question, his football team came first.

Looking at the bigger picture, football can provide countries with a sense of hope and normalcy. Sport is one of the most unifying and inspiring tools for development and peace in the world. Few other social activities bring people together in such great numbers and with so much passion and enjoyment.

It was with that in the back of my mind that I had the privilege to see the President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Dr. Ahmed Ahmed, accompanied by a delegation of officials from the football federations of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti conduct a working visit to Eritrea this past Tuesday. The delegation met with the President of the Eritrean National Football Federation, Mr. Isaias Abraham, as well as the Commissioner of Culture and Sports, Ambassador Zemede Tekle. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen the relationship between the governing bodies of these countries and discuss the development of the game.

During their stay, the delegations had the chance to visit football stadiums and referee and coaching facilities. They also took in an exhibition on the history of football in Eritrea that was held in their honor.

President Ahmed’s visit to Eritrea comes on the back of the FIFA president’s visit to the country earlier this year. Undeniably, this will boost the development of the game in the region and could also contribute to peace.

Sport is enjoyed by all. Its reach is unrivalled. Sport promotes universal values that transcend language and culture. By playing together, we in the Horn of Africa will be learning the universal values of respect, tolerance, and fair play. It will be a victory for sport and a victory for the countries of the Horn.

This was clearly evident during the first edition of the Africa Cup cycling competition that was recently held in Eritrea. People from all walks of life cheered not only for the host nation but for all the countries participating in the event. The Ethiopian flag was waved around the streets of Asmara in equal measure to that of the Eritrean. Moments like these show that sport has great potential to effect positive social change. Football will do the same. As the most popular sport in the world, football is a universal language. It can help bridge the divided and promote values necessary for lasting peace.

Growing up, I loved football to the point of obsession. I am obsessed about the game the same way I was when I was growing up. Note that I say that with pride. You see, football plays a key role in family life in much of Eritrea. It links the shared experiences of family members across generations and creates a sense of tradition and belonging. The strongest of these relationships is that of father and son. Most males become fans because their father watched games with them when they were children. Speak to older fans and they will share their memories of these formative experiences.

Passion for football frequently leads to animated conversations in front of the television or around the dinner table. The role that football plays is very important, particularly given increasing fears about the breakdown of the traditional family unit in Eritrea. One night, a couple of years ago, I was having dinner with my family. As usual, we were immersed in an animated conversation about who was going to win the football match scheduled for that night. The match was the final of the African Cup, featuring Cameroon and Senegal. Apart from the football facts, I realized one other thing that night. We are at our strongest when we are all together. Cameroon won the final that night. My grandfather was the only one supporting them, the rest of us went to bed feeling gloomy.

There is a strong commonality among all fans in Eritrea. In this sense, football unites rather than divides. 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 the upper or lower classes.

Looking back across history, colonialism affected football in Eritrea as much as it did other dimensions of Eritrean life. During that time, the colonizers used the names of teams to instigate internal conflicts among Eritreans and Ethiopians. For example, consider an incident that took place in 1974, when Hamassien defeated Electric of Shewa to win the National Cup against all odds. According to several sources, Embasoira, who were Hamassien’s close rivals, had to win their game and hope Hamassien wouldn’t win theirs by as much as six goals. Miraculously, Hamassien did just that, scoring six goals in the second half to win their game. In the aftermath, fans from both teams confronted each other in the streets.

Eritrea’s liberation fighters, having witnessed the harmful outcome of the game, began to distribute flyers around Asmara alerting people to the plans of the ruling regime. As a result, many players of that era joined the armed struggle, while others went abroad.

The coming of the Derg regime saw intimidation and harassment within football reach a boiling point. Asmara Stadium became a battleground between local teams and teams representing the army or police. Most of the time, Eritrean players were forced to stay in police stations or with their relative for security reasons.

Against all odds, even before the coming of the Derg regime, Eritrea’s players thrived and they formed the backbone 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 parents and grandparents. Memories of past successes have helped establish a sense of togetherness within the Eritrean football community.

Over the years, football culture in Eritrea has grown and spread. I remember supporting the likes of Adulis, where Yidnekachew Shimangus was a star striker, and despising teams like Keih Bahri and Asmara Birra. In the 1960’s, players like Ahmed Abdella, Pache, Itallo, Vasalo, Kiflom Araya, Tesfagabig (Shehay) and teams like Hamassien – whose team jersey resembled that of FC Barcelona’s – were famous. But now we are all, including myself, avid supporters of European football. It is a bit concerning that our interest and focus is directed to football from thousands of miles away, rather than that in our backyard.

Nowadays, when the highly anticipated weekend arrives, cinemas and pubs are filled with fans. The atmosphere makes it feel as if you are at Old Trafford, halfway across the world, watching Manchester United take on Arsenal or at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, watching as the hosts take on Real Madrid. Even though in environments such as this fans may feel a part of something greater than the self and develop feelings of camaraderie with others in their community, we desperately need to find a way to develop similar levels of support and encouragement for our local teams.

As a country located in a region that has a bright future ahead of it, we need to take advantage of peace and normalcy to push ahead with our development plans in all sectors – political, economic, social, and cultural.

Of course, the Eritrean National Football Federation has been working hard to revitalize football by establishing football academies, participating in as many football competitions as possible in order to promote young talent, and structuring the national league in a way that can yield positive results. This was reiterated by President of the Eritrean Football Federation, Mr. Isaias, during his meeting with the CAF president.

The recent visit by CAF and neighboring football federations to Eritrea provides a unique opportunity for officials to share different experiences and ideas. This will help develop and improve football in the region. As an unapologetic football maniac, I am highly excited to see the countries of the region collaborate in all aspects of the game to promote the development of football.

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