It was Sunday, January 21st 1962, when the Ethiopian national team, on home soil, defeated Egypt to win the 3rd edition of the African Cup of Nations.
Now what makes that particular achievement even more remarkable is that the national team had Eight Eritrean players in the squad, which all went on to play an instrumental role in helping Ethiopia lift the cup. To this day it remains the only African Cup of Nation Ethiopia has won. Eritrean members of that national team, the class of 62 as one writer put it, would go on to inspire a generation of talented Eritrean footballers.
I have always said football is a way of life in Eritrea. It is true. While the game has not reached the height of what other sports in the country have, namely cycling and athletics, it doesn’t negate the fact that Eritreans are very good football players. I brought that particular example above to remind you, my dear readers, about what our former legendary footballers achieved in the past. While Ronaldinho, who is considered to be one of the most talented footballers the world has seen, to this very day never forgets the Eritreans he came up against when playing at a youth tournament held in Sweden almost a good two decades ago.
After a very long hiatus from the world of football, earlier this year in the month of September the Eritrean men’s national team returned to the fold when its under 20 team took part in a major regional tournament in almost a decade. The Cecafa u-20 challenge cup, held in Uganda. The players left a lasting impression, having played beautiful football. Throughout the tournament they were dubbed Barcelona for their ability to move the ball around with ease and composure which resembles that of those seasoned Blaugrana professionals who play under the floodlights of the Nou Camp. That team won bronze and little did most know those youngsters had planted the seeds for more success in the future.
More success has indeed followed, and the ink is yet to dry on the youngsters’ historic achievement. The Eritrean senior side had reached the final of the Cecafa Seniors Challenge cup a mere two months after its under 20 side claimed third in the competition. All the more impressive, this hefty achievement has been accomplished by the majority of the players who made up much of that youth side, this time around promoted to the national team after their heroics in Kampala. Both teams have been captained by the youngster Robel. Having qualified for the semi’s coach Alemsghed told Cafonline that he had brought much of his young side that came third in the under 20 Championships. “I took most of the players from the under- 20 team and brought them here; that is why we have success,” said Alemseghed.
The Red Sea Camels opened their current campaign with a narrow 1-0 victory over favorites Burundi. The scoreline suggests it might have been a tight game but the Eritreans controlled the game from kick off to the closing whistle. They were solid at the back and smooth in the middle of the park, transitioning from the back to the front with ease, finding no difficulty whatsoever bypassing the Burundi press. Up front the team could have done better in terms of converting their chances with Ali and Robel coming agonizingly close to opening the deadlock on numerous occasions. In the end a 1-0 result, a goal courtesy of Robel Kidane right at the stroke of half time gave Eritrea its first away win in a major tournament in nearly ten years.
Up next for Eritrea came Uganda. It is important to note that the Uganda national team took part in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations held in Egypt. The Eritrean players had their work cut out for them. At the end of the final whistle the score-line showed 2-0 in favor of the Cranes, leaving Eritrea needing positive results in its remaining two matches against Djibouti and Somalia to advance to the semis.
In match day 3 for Eritrea, a brace from Ali Suleiman and a goal from Isaias Abraham put Djibouti to the sword and Eritrea in a good position to advance to the next round. In the final group match a goalless draw for the Red Sea Camels against Somalia secured their spot in the next round, all the more impressive since this was the first time they have reached the semi’s since 1994.
In the semi’s Eritrea came against another Africa Cup of nation’s participant and defending champions, the Harambee Stars of Kenya. Prior to the match Coach Alemsghed talking to Goal.com said his team was serious about winning the title.
During the match, the Eritreans. backed by their passionate supporters, took the game by the scurf of the neck as goals from Abel Solomon, Michael Habte and Robel Kidane capped off a dominate display of football and in the process secured their ticket in the final and condemned Kenya for a third spot playoff. The Red Sea Camels, in their first major tournament in almost a decade, reached the final.
“We had done our home work right on the Kenyan team and we knew they were a physical side, playing long balls and the best way to deal with them was by keeping the ball on the ground and closing the spaces. Everything worked and we have won by a big margin against a tough opponent,” said the elated Eritrea’s coach.
Growing up I loved football to the point of obsession. I still am obsessed about the game with the same vigor and passion as I did growing up. This year I was happy and proud to witness the revitalization of our football.
Throughout the last twelve months I saw the full realization of what I have known for such a long time; we are a good football playing nation! I witnessed our u-15 national side play courageously against Kenya in a full packed Stadium Asmara. Though the little Red Sea Camels lost that match 2-1, they gave Kenya a proper football lesson on the day. More importantly, Eritrea hosted an overall successful tournament yet again, showing its full commitment to the development of the game in the region. In September, our u-20 national side went to Uganda and came third, while playing football that resembled the great Barcelona. The women’s side also made history by taking part in a major regional tournament for the first time in their history and during their stay recorded their first victory as well. And now our senior side have impressively marched themselves into the history books by reaching the final of the men’s Cecafa seniors challenge cup.
In the final while the Eritreans succumbed to a 3-0 defeat to the Cranes of Uganda, it does not overshadow the mark they once again leave in the tournament. Showing battling qualities and composure in abundance, the Eritreans, led by their skipper Robel Teklemichael, who was named best player of the tournament, were the youngest team in the tournament. After a decade of absence from the competition, wining silver is a feat to achieve on its own. With continued effort towards developing our game to the required standard, we will in a short period of time be a footballing power house. These boys who have opened a new chapter without a doubt are history makers!