A Look at the Football Culture in Asmara through the experiences of Michael Habte The Global Sport of Choice
Football is considered to be one of the most popular sports around the world. Accessibility and convenience play a huge role in the sports’ prevalence, specifically in developing countries. Sports like tennis, swimming, or even basketball require space and equipment to play the games, making them elite sports that are limited in reach.
The popularity of football in the Eritrean culture seems to have followed generations outside of the country itself, with national and international festivals being held annually by the diaspora. These festivals often include football competitions that allow players and non-players of Eritrean descent from all areas to connect and bond through the game.
Although the history of football in Eritrea has been viewed with notoriety by the outside world and the diaspora – what is the perception of the sport within the country itself? Within the past year, the Eritrean National Football Federation has been thriving, winning all of the friendly games and the hearts of the people, undefeated so far this season. All of their games are being played in Asmara Stadium, with a stunningly high attendance. Michael Habte, also known as “Tunushu”, age nineteen, is a starting midfielder for Eritrea’s National Football Federation (ENFF). We discuss everything from the relevance of his nickname to what life is like in Asmara as a professional footballer, and he gives me his perspective on Eritrean culture.
• How did you start playing football?
I started playing football when I was eight, and I played with my friends for a local team around my neighborhood. After that I played for a divisional team and from there got a chance to try out for the National team.
• What is your average day-to-day routine as an athlete like?
It depends. Once game season hits, there’s intense training in order to get our skills up to par. So we begin training a few months prior to playing in any matches. On the week of a match – let’s say there’s a game on Sunday – we will train on Monday, Wednesday and Friday or even Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
It’s definitely tiring, but there are recovery periods in order to gain back your energy for the next day’s training session. So we eat and sleep for a couple of hours immediately after training. We also have to follow a certain diet during the season. Our club gives us access to certain places to ensure we’re eating the necessary nutrients.
We have curfews – it’s mostly supposed to go in accordance with our recovery periods. If we stay up late every night, we might get tempted to drink or party, which will obviously affect our performance in the game the next day. Why make your job harder? If we’re here to win we need to make sure we have a certain level of restraint – at least, I do.
• Can this kind of routine affect your social life at all?
Well, it depends on what kind of social life you have. Like I said, if you’re in a time-consuming relationship or frequently go out late with your friends, your energy and focus will be affected. The problem with these kinds of social lives is that they are often spontaneous and sporadic and that can take away from any discipline and routine you have set in place.
You don’t want to overindulge in anything that can make you tired or take away from your adrenaline on game day. It’s really all about self-control.
• Do you enjoy playing for the National team? What are the ups and downs?
I’ve been watching and playing football since I was young, so it’s something that I’ve held on to as a dream…I’m very happy I get to play at this level; I never want to stop playing.
My teammates and I are extremely close, considering that we are always together. Obviously with that comes some tension or disagreement. Training can be tiring and can affect your mood. You may run into people who are great players or great leaders but tend to have terrible attitudes… that’s a natural part of any job. It’s just impossible to get along with everybody, all the time – but that’s okay. You can’t let it affect your game. Especially if you’re in a position of doing something you actually enjoy.
• What is the average career length of a National team player?
Well, it depends on how your performance holds up. It’s ideal to get players when they are around 17 years old so that their fitness and energy stay high for several years. Once you hit your mid or late twenties, your stamina starts to dwindle, right?
• Is that why there’s a global trend of professional athletes faking and lowering their ages so that they can stay active longer?
Probably. I think that’s a trend that has started fading though. It’s too hard to actually get away with that nowadays. A recruiter can have access to records and can easily research someone’s real information.
• So you’re saying you’re really 19 years old? Is that where your nickname came from?
You know what “tunush” means? Clever.
• What do you think of Eritrean culture, overall?
It’s a family-dominated culture. I think everyone’s experience varies depending on how you were raised and because of that you can run into people who have a ton of street smarts or people who are extremely sheltered. It’s definitely a heavy culture… What do you think of it?
• I’ve been struggling to adapt and understand some parts of the lifestyle but I’m trying my best!
Of course, you’re coming from one part of the world to another. But I think it’s good you are trying to learn – you can take pieces of the culture that you admire and leave the rest…and in exchange the people who you interact with here can learn from you as well.
• Do you think football plays an important role in the culture?
Definitely, I would say football is the most popular sport. The national team is getting even more love now considering how we have been winning all of our friendlies this season. A lot of people have hope that we’ll continue our undefeated streak. I think we’ll start getting even more investment and coverage in the near future because of our performances – people want to see how far we can go.
• Where do you see football taking you?
My one desire has always been to just play football. In Asmara, I’ve already reached my goal of making it to the National team. Next, I hope I can get the experience of playing abroad professionally… I just want to keep moving up the ladder. That’s the dream.