Eritrean Soccer Team Defects In Kenya

A 12-member Eritrean soccer team went missing in Kenya after a regional tournament in which they were eliminated by Tanzania. Defections are common from Eritrea, one of Africa's newer nations and one of its most authoritarian and repressive. Writer Steve Bloomfield talks to Renee Montagne about the defections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. When the national soccer team of Eritrea lost in a regional tournament in Kenya, its star players should have headed home. Instead, they defected - the entire team. All 12 players are now asking for asylum, say Kenyan officials. Among the spectators at last week's tournament was Steve Bloomfield. He's writing a book about soccer in Africa, and he joined us to talk about this.

Good morning.

Mr. STEVE BLOOMFIELD (Author): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather that the players did not show up at the plane that was waiting to take them back to Eritrea. And surely, it wasn't because they were taking their loss so hard.

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: No, it wasn't. Eritrea is not one of the greatest places in the world to live, I think it's fair to say. Many young people, in fact, all young people have to do military service. And this can last a very long time. I was actually in Eritrea about a month or so ago, and I met there in their late 20s, early 30s who are still doing their national service.

Now, soccer is one of the few legal ways to get out of doing military service. All these players who are in the team would've been officially members of the army. So they'll be playing soccer for a few years, but unlike in most countries, if you have a career in soccer then, you know, when you retire, you can think about do you want to go into coaching, do you want to become a commentator, do you want to set up a business. In Eritrea, once the soccer career ends, you go back to military service. So that would've been what they were hoping to escape from.

MONTAGNE: So this loss, of course, in and of itself wasn't the end of these guys careers. But at the same time it was an opportunity, because, what - they were Kenya.

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: Exactly. This tournament takes place every year in countries across east and central Africa. This year, it was in Kenya. And it's not the first time that Eritrean footballers have used a tournament like this to escape. In 2006, when the tournament was held in Tanzania, there were seven or eight players who disappeared then.

There was an African champion's league match again in 2006, where four members of the local Asmara side disappeared. So it's the not first time. But never has it been done on quite such a scale as this.

MONTAGNE: Now, soccer - or futbol, as they call it - is hugely popular in Africa. What about Eritrea? Is that the case, too? Did these guys have a lot of fans at home?

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: Soccer is a big sport in Eritrea, not quite as big as cycling, bizarrely, which I think they've got from Italy. Italy used to be their colonial masters of Eritrea. But soccer is a big sport in Eritrea. The players would've been well-known within the country. I mean, they won't be, you know, David Beckham-style superstars, but people would certainly know who they were.

MONTAGNE: So what kind of reaction is this defection getting back there, and also, can they go back?

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: Well, the Eritrean government initially denies that the players haven't turned up. And after a day or so, they've changed their tune and admitted that they have gone, but have said despite the fact they've betrayed the country, they will still be welcomed back with open arms. I'm not sure whether they would be or not.

Eritrea has a history of not looking after people who either criticize the government or are seen to do things which make the country look bad. So I'm not quite sure what sort of reaction they would get if they do decide to return.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, should they return, the life there is a very much a tough one.

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: It is, yes. The national service that people have to do there takes a lot out of people. And it also means you don't have very much money. So lots of people do try and leave. You know, what these Eritrean soccer players have done is not unusual, really. Eritrea has one of the highest defection rates in the world. I think it's second only to Zimbabwe as a source of asylum seekers. And when you consider the country only has five million people, that really says an awful lot about what the country is like.

MONTAGNE: So what does this mean for other soccer players in Eritrea? I mean, would the government even let them go to tournaments in other countries?

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: Well, possibly not. The organizers of this tournament have said next time they host it, they're going to provide round-the-clock police protection for the Eritrean squad. But after what's happened, I'd be surprised if Eritrea sent another team.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BLOOMFIELD: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Writer Steve Bloomfield joined us from London. His upcoming book is called ´┐ŻAfrica United.´┐Ż

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