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The U-15 Eritrean National Team at the CECAFA Peace & Development Cup 2019

The CECAFA U-15 Development Cup 2019 ended yesterday, and for the past two weeks Asmara Stadium has been busy.

The tournament was organized to cultivate talented soccer players right from their young age. As the host of the tournament, the U-15 National Team of Eritrea was one of the teams that shone during the games. Although, it didn’t make it to the semi-finals, the national team showed a fantastic performance that made the soccer fans go crazy during the tournament.

Despite the short training time, the U-15 players competed against some teams that previously had experience playing in international games and managed to be named one of the best teams at the event. We talked to Mokonen Zewde, coach of the Eritrean national team, and Naod Habtom, Captain of the team.

Coach Mekonen Zewde

  • Thank you for your time, coach. Please tell us about your experience at the tournament?

Well, I would like to start off by saying that Eritrea is lucky to have an opportunity to host a tournament, the first of its kind in Africa. It is an honor to have the chance to nurture young soccer players and support them to become successful. It is an occasion for our U-15 players to experience international competitions for the first time. The National team was organized in a short time from all over the country. As a couch I would say that the time we spent preparing for the tournament was not enough. But my team showed great talent and passion on the pitch, which was a surprise to everyone who was part of the CECAFA tournament. Those players proved that their skill goes beyond their passion. The game against Kenya was one of the best games that have ever been played at Asmara Stadium. As a coach, I don’t believe that we worked hard for this game. However, those kids have shown us that, with all the necessary support that they can get, they are the base for the elite National Team for the future.

  • The team was formed with kids around the regions, what can you say about that?

We selected 39 players out of more than 80 players. We were first told to prepare a team with boys born in 2005. Then suddenly it changed and we had to come up with players who were born in 2004, just eight days before the opening ceremony of the tournament. There’s no doubt there were challenges. But we managed, and we formed the team. Regardless of where they came from, these kids got much more out of the experience. They shared cultures and experiences but most of all they communicated well through soccer. That is what counts and that is the secret to how well they performed.

  • Besides the short time you had to prepare, were there other reasons the National team couldn’t make it to the semi-finals?

Well, to be totally honest, these kids never had the exposure to friendly international games. They have never played in a big field and, most of all, they have never played in front of thousands of spectators. Everything was a first for them. This is why I believe we lost the first game against Burundi. They couldn’t keep up with the fans and that put a massive pressure on them all. My best players on the training field looked total strangers to me. If these players had the chance to have friendly international games earlier, there isn’t a question about how well they would have played.

Despite their lack of experience, though, the national team challenged the teams that had all kinds of privileges. Nonetheless, Eritreans are naturally good at soccer. Soccer is our culture; every kid gets to play soccer at a young age. They grow up playing on the streets, and that is how it all starts. This is the biggest reason we have talent for soccer.

Coach, it is an opinion of many of the fans that watched the U-15 national team play on this tournament that this team should be developed to the elite National team. What do you say to that?

It is true. They are the best and they should be nurtured to be a bigger team. If these players are monitored and supported, they are going to be some of the best players that we have ever seen. There should be more local and international games organized. That is one way to develop soccer from the early stage.

Naod Habtom, Captain of the National Team

  • Naod, what was the experience the team got out of this event?

It was a great experience to play at an international contest. It is something that we got to do for the first time, which was a bit challenging. Although we had good games, we weren’t able to get to the semi-finals. One of the saddest times for the team really. It was an experience that proved that we could do better if we had sufficient time training. Everyone saw how hard we made it for the other national teams that had better platforms and opportunities. I think that if we had previously met the national teams at friendly games, we would have ideas of who the best players and defenders are. Regardless of all this, we are happy that we showed our skills and we played passionately on the field.

Most of all, we all got to share cultures and experiences with the other African teams. Our National Team came from all over the country and we had so much to share and learn from each other as well. That was the best part. There is love in this team and it was the biggest experience.

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