This part of east Africa has a deep love of football, both in domestic and international terms. Andy Ryan reports

It’s a title decider. Red Sea FC, the traditional giants of the Eritrean game, will be champions if they beat struggling Tesfa. A whisper in my right ear says: “Watch Red Sea’s number eight, he has much talent.” Less than 20 seconds later, number eight dispossesses a defender, rounds the keeper and gives Red Sea the lead. The baseball cap-wearing Nostradamus smiles.

The Eritrean equivalent of 1966 is 1962. In that year, Ethiopia, Eritrea’s hated occupiers for over three decades, won the Africa Cup of Nations with a side that was almost entirely Eritrean. Locals believe 1962 is proof that this is a nation with footballing pedigree.

“People look at China and think that because it’s big, they will be good. But countries need football spirit.” This elderly gent believes a population of just 5.6 million will not hold back the Red Sea Camels (the national team’s nickname and not to be confused with Red Sea FC). That nine of the 32 nations bound for South Africa have fewer than ten million people supports his point. And perhaps he’s right about “football spirit”. If a small nation like this is to succeed, the sport needs to be part of the national psyche.

Politics complicates progress. Players view away matches as opportunities to escape the oppressive regime. Much of the side that travelled to the 2007 Cecafa Cup (contested by sides from east and central Africa) claimed asylum in Tanzania, leading to Eritrea’s withdrawal from both the 2008 competition and World Cup qualifying. When in December the team did travel to the 2009 Cecafa Cup, 12 players remained in Kenya after the tournament’s end. It’s hard to build a side when it keeps disappearing.

The underdogs Tesfa, who have been enjoying more of the possession, equalise with a glorious strike from just inside the area. Cue joyous dancing by the corner flag.

Many here believe development requires investment which this nation can’t afford. Love of the game isn’t enough; consider the vast infrastructure that every successful footballing nation takes for granted. Evidence of some FIFA endeavour is in front of me – this game is being played on an Astroturf pitch bought by the organisation’s Goal Programme. In addition to its convenience, the excellent surface makes possible the rapid and intricate short passing moves that characterise the game here. It’s easy on the eye and indicative of a belief that there is a right way to play the game.

The first half ends. Tea is sipped from delicate glasses, making this the most refined half time I have ever passed. English fans are weary of hearing about the Premier League’s global popularity from marketing men talking about “markets to explore” while counting potential replica shirt sales in their heads. Yet meeting this global popularity in the flesh reminds you of what an extraordinary thing it is. The fan who proudly shows me the picture of Steven Gerrard on his phone. Another smilingly recounts how his wedding car was decked out in Man Utd colours. One tells me about his lucky Saturday underwear.

“My dream is to referee at the World Cup finals.” At just 26, Michael is the youngest referee in the Eritrean Premier League. Today he is on fourth official duty, doing his best to control the two over-animated coaches. The way he learns is a fine example of international collaboration. When there is a contentious incident in a game, he posts the details online and referees from all over the world then offer advice. “We all learn from each other.” Progress here will rely on passionate pioneers such as Michael. “I watch the Premier League a lot. But only to see the referees.”

Red Sea are utterly dominant but unable to find a winner. Shot after shot flies over the crossbar. With just a minute to go, we nearly have an almighty upset. Tesfa launch a rare counter-attack and their pacey lone striker is through on goal. But, panicked by the enormity of the moment, he hesitates and the keeper comes out to save comfortably. Plenty of disbelieving groans. The full-time whistle comes and Red Sea’s title aspirations must wait.

“The problem is they are not paid enough.” It’s very strange to hear a fan demanding more money for players. “If they were paid more they would take it more seriously. They are too interested in drinking and women.” I remind my new friend that this isn’t unheard of in the Premier League. “Ah,” he nods sagely. “John Terry.”

From WSC 279 May 2010

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