Last Sunday, the Cicero Stadium, in Asmara, was abuzz with energy. The reason was that the youth national football teams of Eritrea and South Sudan were playing a friendly match.
Although I am not much of an athlete, I always enjoy attending sporting events back home, in the US. Sports are a great way to enjoy friendly competition and feel involved with something bigger than you. Additionally, I was quite interested in seeing how sports (specifically, things like audience participation, sportsmanship between players, etc.) could potentially differ across different ends of the world.
I decided to go to the game with my younger cousin who dreams of being the next Lionel Messi. Although language is a huge barrier for us both and I don’t know much about football (it’s far less popular in the US), I figured that my cousin could help me get the drift and that it would be more of a heightened experience to go with a true fan. We arrived pretty early, since my cousin was convinced that the stadium would be packed hours in advance of the game. He was right; although the friendly wasn’t supposed to start until 4pm, the Cicero Stadium was filled by 2pm. Excited fans were on their cellphones, urgently advising their friends to hurry up and arrive before all the good seats were taken. People of all ages quickly began filling up the stadium. These demographics were easily noticeable because not many females were in attendance. When I pointed this out to my cousin, he was surprised, mentioning that he thought there were more women at the game than what he was typically used to seeing at other football matches. The ratio could also be due to the anticipation of witnessing an international match.
Within five minutes of the first half, Eritrea scored the first goal of the match. The goal, unsurprisingly, was met by deafening cheers. What a great way to kick-off the game – literally! Looking around, I noticed that the majority of fans were standing up, screaming and dancing with praise. I happened to be sitting in front of fans who came to the stadium with blow horns who were intent on using them throughout the match – goal or no goal. Although I thought myself to be sitting in an unlucky spot, my cousin admonished me to relax and get in the spirit of the game. He was right; no one else seemed to be annoyed with the ruckus. Instead, everyone seemed to encourage and revel in it, laughing whenever the blow horns went off.
Eventually, I realized that in order to amplify my first live football experience in Asmara, I really needed to loosen up. Following my cousin’s lead, I began directing shouts of support towards the players, clapping along with the blow horns, even standing up to get a better view of the game. Although I didn’t know any of the players or what their specific positions or roles were, I was keen enough to recognize when the Eritrean team made a goal – and that’s all that really mattered to me!
Eritrea was able to monopolize possession of the ball throughout the first half of the match. This, in addition to the Eritreans’ skills, raised the spirits – and the adrenaline – of the crowd. While both teams were committed to winning and exhibited aggression, the game was played with a high level of sportsmanship and fair play. Remarkably, Eritrea’s players never appeared to be tired, which catalyzed more fan involvement. People were screaming supportive instructions to the players, confident that their voice would be the one heard over hundreds. The smell of Areki wafted past, reflecting just how much the fans were enjoying the occasion. At this point, the audience was so entertaining to me that I found myself paying more attention to what the fans were doing than the actual players on the field.
When the second half of the game commenced, Eritrea scored a second goal, which effectively put the final result beyond doubt. To celebrate, the team performed a dance in front of all of their fans. In the hours and days following the match, my cousin would later demonstrate this dance for me over and over…and over. In the late stages of the match, Eritrea scored their third goal of the game, bringing everyone to their feet for another round of booming cheers, dances, and blow horns.
With less than two minutes on the clock, some fans decided that they had seen enough and left the stadium in hordes, with their spirits high. My cousin and I lagged behind, attempting to enjoy the dwindling seconds left in the game. On our way home, my cousin asked me repeatedly if I enjoyed the match. I was slightly taken aback. “Of course! I’m so happy I went with you,” I assured him. Later that evening, we shared play by plays of the match with the rest of our family members, who seemed to be more interested and pleased with the fact that my younger cousin and I truly connected and became closer over this event.
Yes, it’s true that sports can play a role in development and peace between and within nations. However, what’s more is that sports can also help solidify familial relationships. Through showing curiosity in my cousin’s favorite sport and hobby, I’ve now developed an interest in football, as well, which will only help to foster our relationship. This match symbolized the cultural significance of football in Eritrea, especially with the youth. A game that unified many football fans, allowed me the opportunity to develop a closer bond with my favorite cousin. Last Sunday evening definitely a night to remember!