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Eritrea, a nation of huge footballing potential, but could it be on the verge of regional dominance

By Shafic Kiyaga
Eritrean players celebrate their victory over Kenya in the CECAFA Semi-finals | East Afro photo

The 2019 CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup will be remembered for a diverse number of things, but more for the stamp, the Eritrean national team have left on the tournament.

Eritrea had last taken part in the CECAFA cup in 2012; coincidentally then, it was hosted in Uganda. They finished bottom of Group C picking up a just a point in the goalless draw against Zanzibar before they fell to Malawi and Rwanda.

With quite an abnormal return, Eritrea may pass as a small footballing nation and frankly speaking they are, as they are the lowest ranked nation at this year’s edition and the entire continent.

But when you trackback, Eritreans have produced some of the finest talents on the continent, and registered impressive results like the run in the 1994 competition, even before they had a recognized national football federation which was not formed until 1996.

While Ethiopia still holds the honour of ever lifting the African Cup of Nations in 1962, they achieved that with nine Eritrean players, who withstood political and social barriers to deliver what still remains Ethiopia’s only continental triumph to date.

Goalkeeper Berhane Araya nicknamed Eagle Eye by the BBC, current head coach Alemseged Efrem, Tecleab Isack, Lule Fessahaye, Salih Ali, Negash Mohammed, Yohannes Zemichael formed part of the 1994 squad that reached the semi-finals of the CECAFA.

While Henok Goitom, 36, has been the stand out player of the current generation, scoring 100 goals in a career that’s seen him play for Getafe, Valladolid, Almeria in Spain, Udinese in Italy, San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS and twice for AIK.

He was on the verge of making it to Sweden’s 2006 world cup squad before he was ruled out. In 2015 when FIFA cleared him to play for Eritrea, he has played just four games for them and scored one goal.

The Eritrean National Football Federation (ENFF) formed in 1996, has had its fair share of troubles. Coupled with lack of government support and policies like forceful enrollment into indefinite national service have held back the growth of football in the nation despite being able to produce top players.  

Since 2007, over 50 national team players have deserted the country, with the biggest headlines being about Eritrean athletes seeking asylum in other nations; in 2015 coach Alemseged Efrem and 10 other players sought asylum in Botswana after a 2018 World Cup qualifying game.  

However, all is not lost for the nation, as numerous drives from concerned Eritreans in the diaspora has led to the birth of sports support organisations like Eri-International sports, that help monitor the progress and disseminate information about Eritrean sportsmen, past and present.

But football in the country seems to be taking a turn for the better, the ENFF and coach Efrem have embarked on a blueprint that will see the nation become a powerhouse in the East African region and perhaps the continent.

When Efrem was named national team manager in 2015, he knew the direction the country needed to take, at first he relied on seeking out the Eritrean players in the diaspora, but that was frustrating as well because not many were willing to return.

To supplement that, he knew that homegrown talent had to play a major role in supplementing the foreign players, and they went on a nationwide scouting exercise. The scouted players were given their first teat at the U-20 Championships held in Uganda in September 2019.

They put up a commendable performance, finishing third on top of topping their group that included host Uganda. Efrem needed to test the U-20 crop more, and the Senior Challenge Cup presented that opportunity.

“We started a process of building a team and we had an insistence to have young players. We had a good foundation and scouted from around Eritrea for the best young talent,” Efrem explains.

“We went for the U20 championship and we did well. I took most of the players from the team and brought them here, we brought in a few experienced players to help but the foundation is with U20 players,” he continued.

At the Senior Challenge Cup, Eritrea’s project seems to have started bearing fruits, they have made it to the finals for the first time in history. But more importantly, they have twice broken their biggest winning margin; defeating Djibouti 3-0 before a 4-1 victory over defending champions Kenya.

The last time they tasted victory in the competition was in 2009, in 2019 they have registered three with only a single defeat to Uganda en route the finals.

Ali Suleiman, Kibrom Teklemicheal and Robel Kidane have been outstanding for Eritrea, with the trio forming the centre of the team’s attack. Kidane and Suleiman have scored two goals apiece while Teklemicheal has produced four assists.

One Response

  1. Football is a very interesting sport, because it is through sports that we can improvise the dynamics of life that will make it more colorful. Which team will make you feel like a complete supporter? Sometimes we may also place bets for soccer matches! Thanks for the great help!!

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