The Red Sea Boys, as they are known, suffered a 4-0 defeat against Tanzania on Sunday in the quarter-final of the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup. With Eritrea’s dream of becoming champions over, the players seem to have set off in pursuit of their own dreams. The team aircraft is said to have arrived in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, with only the coach and one official on board.
“Some 12 players did not make it to the airport,” said Nicholas Musonye, general secretary of the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (Cecafa), the organisers of the tournament held in Kenya. “We didn’t expect them to have other ideas because on the field of play they were very good, very entertaining. They were one of the best teams in the competition, despite losing 4-0.”
Mr Musonye said that an investigation had begun, adding: “According to law they are illegal immigrants.”
It is not the first time that Eritrean footballers have made off abroad. When the tournament was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, three years ago eight players vanished. Players have also disappeared at club level. In 2006 four members of the Asmara team Red Sea FC, Eritrea’s top side, escaped their government minders after an African Champions League match in Kenya.
“Playing football is one of the few ways young Eritreans can find a legal way out of military service,” said Steve Bloomfield, author of a forthcoming book, Africa United, who recently returned from a trip to Eritrea and was watching last week’s tournament in Nairobi. “When they come to the end of their careers Eritrean footballers worry they will be sent back to military camp. Instead, many try to flee the country.”
The high rate of defections prompted the Eritrean Government to introduce a rule in 2007 that all travelling athletes must deposit £4,120, and that they must be shadowed by minders at all times.
The dozen players are not alone in seeking to flee their repressive homeland. According to the UN, nearly 63,000 Eritreans fled their country last year, chipping away at a population of about five million, and making Eritrea the world’s second-biggest source of asylum-seekers after Zimbabwe.
President Afwerki of Eritrea has denounced the figures as propaganda. But many blame the despotic nature of his one-party rule for the flood of exiles. The 63-year-old rebel leader turned dictator won power in 1993 after a three-decade war of independence against its bitter enemy, Ethiopia.
This year an investigation by Human Rights Watch found that the Eritrean Government had issued a shoot-to-kill order against anyone attempting to flee across the border. Arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances are common.