When Eritrea a nation withdraw from World Cup qualifying matches earlier this month, it startled everyone.
The world’s largest sporting event is the football World Cup. Teams compete in international qualifications in order to advance to the main competition. It’s difficult; it’s not simple. Consider India, the most populous nation that has never participated in the World Cup. Imagine what they would do for the chance to play! Thus, qualifying for the World Cup is no easy task. Still, a nation has lately withdrew from the qualifiers, prompting many to ask, “What the hell? “Why?”
A week before their opening game against hosts Morocco, Eritrea, a nation in north-east Africa on the Red Sea coast with an estimated 3.7 million people, startled everyone earlier this month by pulling out of the 2026 qualifiers. However, this was not their first instance of doing so.
They pulled out of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers last year. So, one would wonder, why would they do that? The story is simultaneously captivating and fascinating. In actuality, it dates back to 1993, the year it separated from Ethiopia.
Since then, the nation has operated as a one-party state, led by President Isaias Afwerki. It’s a totalitarian nation, and the UN has frequently bemoaned how things there are becoming worse and worse for human rights. According to all reports, residents there are surrounded by repression.
The core of the nation’s present football problems is the fact that a large number of people wish to permanently leave the country. The government of Eritrea has long supported universal military training, and the country has a strongly militarized society. Individual disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests are all part of the fabric.
Additionally, the government punishes draft evaders by proxy measures, such as locking up a parent or spouse to pressure them into turning themselves in. A UN special rapporteur stated in his report from the previous year, “I also received reports about the conscripts who were killed as they tried to escape from Tigray or from military training centers in Eritrea.”
The authoritarian government worries that the players with bases in Eritrea might decide not to come back. In their group, they were scheduled to play five away games in Tanzania, Zambia, Morocco, the Republic of the Congo, and Niger. In all honesty, the regime’s worries are not wholly unfounded. Many Eritrean football players have vanished during or after matches in nations like Botswana, Uganda, and Kenya throughout the years.
In fact, Botswana granted shelter to as many as ten Eritrean football players in 2015. Mohammed Khalid Saeid, a 32-year-old midfielder, was born in Orebro, Sweden, to parents who were refugees. Understandably, he is frustrated. He is a member of the Eritrean diaspora and made his debut for the African nation against Namibia in a 2019 World Cup qualification. Since then, he has not appeared for the national team. Nor has Eritrea participated much. Weeks before Covid-19 reached epic proportions, in early 2020, they played a friendly match against Sudan. That was the last time they were seen in action.
” The fact that so many athletes with Eritrean origin are currently rising to prominence and competing across Europe irritates me. If given the chance, we could compete, but will they truly want to represent Eritrea going forward after seeing what is going on?
The Swedish club Trelleborg’s Saeid made this statement to BBC Sport Africa. For the Eritrean government, it really is a Catch-22. Football will suffer if they don’t allow travel, and abscondment will continue if they let players go. Furthermore, the dictatorship is quite unlikely to alter its methods. Right now, the Eritrean National Football Federation is in trouble. But there is one way to rescue things just a little bit for.
Football in Eritrea. In order to eliminate the possibility of desertion on the African continent, it is understood that the ENFF plans to field a side composed of its diaspora players in their next football fixtures. When this occurs, it will save Eritrean football, but it will also kill the sport’s spirit because there won’t be any players from the country to speak of, and it’s unclear how much the local supporters will be able to connect with them. Like the country’s repression, the situation is currently very dire and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.