With the World Cup set to kick off in Brazil, soccer officials in Eritrea are trying to build a national team from scratch. It’s a process that takes place almost every year, because players from the tiny East African nation keep running away en masse. More than 50 member of the Eritrean soccer team have defected in the past five years alone.
A dozen players disappeared during a tournament in Kenya in 2009, only to turn up later at the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Nairobi. After returning home down without several stars, the coach attempted to present the loss as an opportunity. “Maybe some of the players are very childish to make the disappearance like that, but we have many players,” he is quoted as saying in the book Thirty-One-Nil.
Two years later, another 13 Eritrean players absconded in Tanzania after reaching the quarter-final round of a regional tournament. Several won asylum in the U.S. and moved to Houston. The following year’s mass defection came in Uganda, when 17 top players and the team’s doctor vanished and resurfaced 18 months later in the Dutch town of Gorimchen, after spending time in two refugee camps. “It is a bit surreal; we are small town and suddenly you get a complete national team turn up,” Ronald Tukker, a local soccer club’s spokesman, told the New York Times.
The coach joined the Eritrean soccer exodus last year, disappearing in Kenya along with 11 more members of the national team.
Most of the escaped players won’t speak with the press because they fear for their families back home, and rightly so. Eritrea has a reputation as the North Korea of Africa, with a record as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights. Imprisonment and torture are common, and there is no freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders called the country “a vast open prison for its people.” As many as 4,000 Eritreans who aren’t on the national soccer team attempt to flee every month despite the grave risks. Many are kidnapped for ransom in Sudan, and dozens drown on ships headed for Europe.
It makes sense that soccer players permitted to travel internationally would make a dash. Star athletes from repressive countries have a long history of defecting while abroad. Several have vanished during Olympic games dating back as far as 1948, most from Eastern Bloc countries. A stunning 117 defected during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Cuban athletes regularly run off, and it’s well known that a multimillion-dollar market exists around smuggling talented Cuban baseball players into the U.S. Some, such as Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, are now superstars.
While Eritrean soccer refugees also go on to play soccer in their new home countries, none has become especially famous. And Eritrea’s national team continues to struggle with as its talent flees. According to FIFA, the country ranks 201 internationally.