“We see potential spies and enemies everywhere,” says David. “It can be at border control or it can be in a cafe. The other day, a guy was looking at me strangely, so I left without finishing my breakfast, and jumped in a taxi — asking the driver to take me to the wrong address.”
David is an Eritrean footballer, a refugee who thinks government agents are still watching him even though he fled the country a long time ago and is now thousands of miles away.
Though he has claimed asylum abroad, his fears mean that he often sleeps with a chair pressed against the door of his bedroom. Sometimes he will have nightmares about a group of men armed with weapons bursting in and taking him away.
He lives with the memory of 18 months of training at the Sawa military camp in Eritrea, where, from the age of 15, he was awoken each morning before sunrise and beaten if he did not carry out the orders of his superiors to their liking. There were day-long hikes without food or water and he saw unspeakable violence to women and girls, some of it sexual.
He felt like his future was being stolen from him yet insists he was one of the lucky ones.
While military service can be an unending indenture of slavery in Eritrea, he was released, he believes, because he had already started to prove his talent as a footballer. Yet there was always the threat of being sent back, even after being called up to play for the Eritrean national team.
After Sawa, he could not stop thinking about getting out of Eritrea, a country that was ranked as the least free state in the world in the 2021 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, behind North Korea and other countries known for oppressing and jailing journalists.
David says escape became an “obsession”.
Levels of repression inside the country were getting worse but those trying to leave via its borders were risking indefinite detention. He had heard about underground prisons and a torture chamber known as ‘the oven’ because of the sweltering conditions.
That is why, when he one day travelled abroad to play for Eritrea, he decided to make his move: leaving the team hotel in the middle of the day ostensibly to go shopping for souvenirs. He did not return. He is one of as many as 80 footballers to abscond from the country while in other nations since 2007.
David, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his identity, describes himself as a “patriot” and he insists that he will never experience a greater honour than representing Eritrea as a footballer.
But he thinks he can never go back.
He will not disclose his name publicly because of the perceived threat to his freedom, nor will he confirm where in the world he has resettled, or whether anyone else from the squad escaped with him while on international duty. He says Eritreans are conditioned to distrust journalists because a free press does not exist in their country and anyone who tries to tell the truth is oppressed.
Though he recognises the importance of telling at least part of his story, he is thin on detail at times because the conversation makes him feel nervous.
When he speaks to The Athletic, he talks quietly.
He does not want anyone to hear what he is saying.
When the latest Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) starts in the Ivory Coast on Saturday, a team from Eritrea will not be there.
Eritrea have never qualified for a major international tournament but, on this occasion, did not even enter the process after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) confirmed the country did not have a stadium that fulfilled its safety requirements to host home matches.
Nor are Eritrea competing to reach the 2026 World Cup.
In November, the Eritrean National Football Federation (ENFF) withdrew its entry via a short statement issued by world football’s governing body FIFA and CAF, which said simply that “all of Eritrea’s matches have been cancelled”.
This decision came after talk of an agreement being reached between ENFF and the Royal Moroccan Football Federation (RMFF) to use that country’s training facilities, which meet CAF standards, before all matches. David interprets Eritrea’s most recent retreat as a reaction from the government fearful of geography, given Morocco’s proximity to Europe and the increased likelihood of more players using the agreement as an opportunity to flee.
“It then becomes an international incident,” says David. “Eritrea does not want the world talking about its problems.”
The last time Eritrea played a competitive, FIFA-recognised game of football, in 2019, they tumbled out of the 2022 World Cup at the qualifying stages after losing over two legs to Namibia. In the same month, four members of the nation’s under-20 side sought asylum in Uganda.
In a sporting sense, the timing of this defection was significant.
Eritrea had trounced Zanzibar to reach the semi-finals of the CECAFA Under-20 Championship — consisting of national teams from east and central African nations — when, amid the celebrations and platitudes from government officials back home, the players made their move. This escape involved convincing the ‘minders’ watching over the squad that they had earned the opportunity to go for a walk without unwanted companionship.
Three months later, another seven players from the senior national team absconded in the same country.
Six of those players have since claimed they were underage when they were forcibly conscripted into the army.
On five occasions since 2009, Eritrean footballers have used the opportunity to seek refuge elsewhere rather than return to a country that is often referred to by Western media as the “North Korea” of Africa.
Permanently mobilised conscripts have been instrumental to the rule of Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, since the start of the 1990s, when the country gained independence from southern neighbour Ethiopia following a war that lasted 30 years.
Though he initially presented himself as a man of the people, Eritrea has become an authoritarian state under Afwerki, with no national assembly, no constitution or independent judiciary. According to a report produced by the UN Human Rights Council, nearly 40,000 Eritreans tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014 alone.
Two years later, the UN claimed that crimes against humanity had been committed in Eritrea in a “widespread and systematic manner”.
The same report said: “Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder, and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instil fear in, deter opposition from, and, ultimately, to control the Eritrean civilian population.”
By 2018, a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia led to its borders opening and 5,000 people a day leaving the country.
That year, half a million Eritreans fled — a tenth of its population.
Yet footballer David, along with other Eritrean sources who have discussed their experiences with The Athletic on the condition of anonymity, has spoken about the “paranoia” there, where people are sceptical of old international alliances and are, in some cases, thankful to Afwerki for maintaining the country’s sovereignty.
The president retains the support of a mainly older generation having successfully created an image of himself as a besieged leader, successfully combating threatening external forces in the name of independence, while maintaining its key strategic position on the Horn of Africa.
This means that some refugees remain loyal to him, even after resettling following tremendous hardship in their journeys. They say they have not sought a future elsewhere because of Afwerki but because of the actions of other countries, including landlocked Ethiopia, which is threatening to establish a port on Eritrean soil.
Afwerki has informed Eritrean behaviours to such an extent that within expat communities abroad, it is dangerous to discuss politics wherever you happen to live.
David knows people who have been verbally and physically abused on the street for telling their stories publicly.
“You never know who is reading, who is listening, what they think, and what they will do with that information,” he says.
The last time Eritrea played a competitive game of football, Mohammed Saeid made his international debut.
Unlike the other footballers featured in this article, he is willing to talk on the record because none of his relatives or friends still live in Eritrea.
His mother and father fled during the country’s war of independence with Ethiopia, which started in 1962.
Saeid was born in Sweden in 1990. His parents initially crossed the Red Sea, to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, joining thousands of Eritreans in camps. Eventually, they would make it to Norway, before settling in Orebro, a 200-kilometre (124-mile) drive west of Stockholm, the Swedish capital.
He meets The Athletic in a cafe in Birmingham, England’s second-biggest city, where his family relocated almost 20 years ago because of his football talent.
Saeid joined nearby West Bromwich Albion — thanks largely to the encouragement of Dan Ashworth, who later became a director of elite development with the English Football Association before a hugely successful spell at Brighton & Hove Albion as sporting director, which led to a move to Newcastle United, where he holds the same role.
Yet Saeid’s entire professional career has been spent away from the country he now calls home. After being released by West Brom, he returned to Sweden, where his performances in midfield for Orebro earned him a deal in 2015 with Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew.
A first approach to represent Eritrea came around this time. The contact, however, was not from an Eritrean football official. Henok Goitom’s parents were also Eritrean and, aged 31, he was coming towards the end of a playing career which had involved five years in Spain with Murcia, Valladolid and Almeria.
Saeid knew all about Goitom because he was the most famous Eritrean footballer in Sweden, where he’d already played 13 times for the under-21 side. Yet Saeid had never met him, so it was a surprise when suddenly, Goitom started messaging on social media, enquiring whether he would be interested in representing a country he’d never visited.
In the second game of his international career with Eritrea, Goitom scored in a 3-1 away defeat in Botswana, which ended involvement in the qualifying rounds for the 2018 World Cup.
Goitom was on the plane which returned to Eritrea’s capital Asmara following that match but 10 domestic players did not board, deciding instead to seek refuge in the closest Red Cross centre in Francistown.
Local reports suggested the players were worried about the prospect of military service. It was also reported that the players seeking political asylum had suddenly decided not to work with the lawyers provided by the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) following intimidation from agents representing the Botswana government, which allegedly threatened the footballers by claiming they risked rotting in a camp for illegal immigrants if they accepted the invitation by EMDHR to take their case to court.
After being contacted by The Athletic, EMDHR confirmed that the players had been sent to a remote refugee camp where they were not able to work and their movement was restricted. “It was a big shock to them and they struggled to cope,” a spokesman wrote in an email.
The resettlement to a different country took years to materialise due to the high refugee influx at the time to Europe, mainly from Syria. This led to three of the footballers giving up hope in the process, instead choosing to move to South Africa where refugees are relatively free to move and work in informal small businesses.
EMDHR confirmed that marriage allowed one of the three to move to Canada, the country six of the seven who stayed in Botswana also eventually settled in. Another went to Australia after getting married.
With Eritrea losing 10 of their best domestic players, they sought solutions in the country’s worldwide diaspora, but only because of the determination of notable figures such as Goitom.
Except, on that occasion, Saeid decided not to join them.
When he saw the travel arrangements, he had started to think twice. The training camp before a run of competitive fixtures lasted a couple of months and would conflict with his professional commitments in MLS.
Though it might have been possible to arrive closer to those games, the journey still involved four flights — more than 50 hours and a couple of days of flying time each way. He accepted it was going to be a tiring trip but the fatigue concerned him. Would he be able to train and then perform to the expected levels after travelling from Columbus in the Midwestern state of Ohio to New York, to Frankfurt in Germany, to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and then to Asmara?
The layovers between some of these flights were tight as well, so he was counting on lots of things falling into place. “When you do your job, you want to do it to the fullest.”
By 2019, Saeid was back in Sweden with a team called Sirius, where he was in contact with more players of Eritrean descent. They communicated on social media and in WhatsApp groups. Lots of them were talking about the prospect of representing their country. Goitom again acted as a conduit, telling the Eritrean federation that as many as 10 Scandinavian-based Eritreans were interested.
Saeid was getting older, realising that such an opportunity might not come around again. He had never set foot in Eritrea, but he says he acted as a sort of foreman for the country’s football diaspora, encouraging others to join him — even though he did not know what to expect himself. “I did start to ask, ‘Is this actually my job?’.”
This time, the logistical challenge was far simpler: Stockholm to Addis Ababa, then on to Asmara. After landing in Eritrea, he joined a group of players who had been in camp together for several months. He says the sight of so many unfamiliar faces at what was, to them, the late stage of preparations appeared to confuse the domestic Eritrean players, who have limited access to the internet due to government restrictions.
It was clear to Saeid nobody had explained to them that commitments in Europe dictated that clubs only released players for a fortnight at a time under FIFA rules. They began to understand, but it was up to newcomers such as Saeid to try to explain why, rather than any coach or official.
Integration time with new team-mates, however, was limited. Could this have been a deliberate strategy, to keep domestic Eritreans away from their countrymen living abroad, to prevent them from hearing about the supposed riches of Europe?
Saeid says he will never know but over the week that followed, he spent much of it sitting around for hours in hallways of different government buildings, waiting for this document to be stamped, then another one.
He was there for seven days but it felt like two weeks because of all the waiting, though others travelling from Sweden were grilled more intensely than him. One player had claimed to have a relative still living in Eritrea and this led to the police driving out to a village in the countryside hours away and bringing that person back to Asmara to validate his status.
Quite why some of the easier details to establish were not dealt with before his trip was never explained. Saeid knows for certain, however, that all of this paperwork was not helpful as he tried to prepare for a vital World Cup qualifier with Namibia.
His father had recommended he visit one of the old cinemas of Asmara and eat gelato: pastimes from the country’s old Italian colonial days. Yet there was very little time for Saeid to see the country because of the amount of bureaucracy to get through.
Across seven days, he took part in just two training sessions. Confirmation of Saeid’s eligibility only arrived on the day of the game. Of all the players to travel from Stockholm, only he was permitted to feature in the tie’s first leg, but he remained on the substitutes’ bench, watching Eritrea lose 2-1. Though he was disappointed not to get on, he says he did not feel ready to play anyway because the week had been so draining.
Throughout all of this, nobody from the federation had introduced themselves to him. There had not been a team meeting to go over tactics either.
For the second leg in Namibia, it has been claimed by the Human Rights Concern group for Eritrea that domestic players had to pay bonds of £5,600 ($7,100) to leave the country.
Though the mood was generally more relaxed, Saeid says he only found out he was making his international debut when some of his team-mates started gossiping during the warm-up. Confirmation came when the FIFA officials in charge of the match inadvertently revealed the team by checking all of the players were wearing the correct shirts.
“I don’t know why the coach wasn’t involved,” he says. “I’m still not sure whether this is just the culture in Eritrea. It was never explained. We just put on our shirts and went out and played.”
Another defeat meant Eritrea were not going to the World Cup. Yet Saeid was encouraged by the level of ability in the squad and he was excited that his international career had finally started. Yet in the months that followed, 11 of their players claimed asylum in Uganda and the country have not played competitively at any level since.
Eritrea have no FIFA ranking because they haven’t played a fixture within the governing body’s parameter of 48 months. It is now more than four years since that trip to Namibia and in that time, Saeid says nobody from the federation has contacted him to explain what is going on.
When it was announced that Eritrea would not compete to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, Saeid found out on social media.
Now aged 33, his most recent club were Trelleborg in the Swedish second division. He says he would love to represent his country again but feels his international career is over.
He remains in a WhatsApp chat group with hundreds of Eritrean footballers based across the world.
“The appetite is there,” he insists. Yet when players ask him about the next steps in terms of contacting the country, he does not know where to send them. “Eritrea has potential, there’s a lot of talent growing, but we are going to lose all of these players because we don’t have a foundation to build from.”
For any Eritrean wanting to escape the country, the only option is the illegal route: risking the border crossing into Ethiopia or Sudan, to the west, before travelling north, trying to reach the Mediterranean via Libya, where the EU has committed close to €100million (£86.3m; $109.5m) on funding the country’s coastguard.
This investment helped circumnavigate international law that states people cannot be returned to countries if their lives are at risk. Instead, after being caught at sea, refugees are taken back to Libya where, between 2017 and 2022, more than 100,000 men, women and children have been locked up, essentially for being there illegally — albeit without any official charges or trials to contest their imprisonment.
Hermon considers himself in the “lucky” category, despite the hardship he has experienced.
To ensure the safety of a small number of family members he left behind in Eritrea, he permits The Athletic to use only his first name and he asks for certain details in the story that follows to be changed to protect the identities of other people connected to him.
Hermon was not an international footballer but his journey illustrates what many people in his country have had to go through in attempting to get out. He was, however, an aspiring footballer, and dreamed of playing in England because of his admiration for Wayne Rooney. He says that was never going to happen if he remained in Eritrea.
From the age of seven, he worked on a farm and by 13, he faced the prospect of conscription into the army, which, in his words, only considered boys according to whether they were “strong enough to hold a gun”.
He lived in a market town close to the Ethiopian border. His decision to leave was spontaneous: fuelled by a conversation with five friends one night while they were playing football. The town’s population was plummeting and Hermon says that watching his friends go without him would have felt like abandonment, leaving him only with an unending future in the army to contemplate.
One of his brothers had already left Eritrea, resettling in the Middle East. His success as a businessman acted as a reference point when the going got really tough back home in the subsequent weeks, months and years.
None of the boys told their parents about what they were going to do, and none of them really knew where they were heading. It was an eight-hour walk to the border and Hermon remembers the pangs of excitement and dread when he reached the Tekeze River, which acts as a barrier between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
His impression of the Ethiopian army was a brutal one because of the country’s relationship with Eritrea. Yet he says they gave him everything he needed: food, water and a place to sleep.
For three months, he was moved between refugee camps. One of them was riddled with malaria, which he contracted. This made him consider returning to Eritrea but his brother’s financial support allowed him to reach Sudan, after paying a smuggler £2,000, half in advance and half on arrival. He says he knows other refugees who lied about the depth of their finances and ended up paying with body parts.
In Sudan, he felt especially vulnerable. There was the threat of Daesh and other armed militant groups. As a Christian, Hermon knew that if Daesh found him, he’d have to convert to Islam or face death. Refugees like him were also targeted by the police for extortion.
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The journey over the desert to the Libyan border took three weeks. There was barely anything to eat or drink and there was no protection from the scorching sun. People died in front of him, of thirst and starvation. The back of the truck he travelled in was packed and if someone fell off, the driver did not stop.
He says he was fortunate that his stay in Libya lasted just a week. In a holding camp outside Tripoli, the capital, some of the refugees were suicidal after years of detention. Many of the men had been beaten, while women were raped and children were tortured.
The refugees came from all over Africa. Some of them had made it onto a boat, only for it to be seized at sea, and sent back to Libya. Some had been on this demoralising journey more than once. Everyone he met appeared shot psychologically.
Hermon spent his 14th birthday surrounded by people he did not know, uncertain of where he was heading and when the next leg of that journey would start.
Without his brother’s financial support, he thinks he’d have never made it out of Libya — certainly not as quickly as he did. Within a week, he was on an overcrowded, patched-together vessel drifting across the Mediterranean at night. It took 12 hours to reach the Italian island of Sicily.
He arrived in the Sicilian city of Catania freezing cold and wet through. In the Cara Mineo refugee camp there, he was told he’d have to stay until he was old enough to leave. Potentially, that would have meant a four-year detention. He decided to break out, paying a Nigerian gang to cut a hole in a fence in the middle of the night. With two other refugees, they rushed north, using taxis, buses and trains to get to the mainland. In Rome, a restaurant owner took pity on him and paid for the travel to Paris.
He had heard of ‘The Jungle’ outside Calais. There, he paid smugglers to take him to Britain by lorry but five months later he was still waiting. He thought of travelling instead to Germany. When the French government started dismantling the camp, he was identified as being underage and this led to him being taken along with around 30 other children to another facility in the south of France, near Toulouse.
At the back of his mind, Hermon still dreamed about becoming a footballer. After three months, he broke out of the camp again in the middle of the night, travelling east to Marseille. He took a train back up to Calais, by which point nearly all of the refugees had left. He hoped that smugglers might still operate from the town of Berck-sur-Mer but no one appeared to be there either.
As he tried to figure out what to do, a lorry pulled up and parked in front of a bar. He saw an Italian registration number and decided there and then, wherever it took him, he would try and reach England. Since leaving Eritrea, he had always carried a knife with him for protection. This time, he used it to cut through the tarpaulin on the roof of the vehicle, before climbing into a machine, along with two other refugees.
The journey that followed lasted 14 hours. He could hear he was on a ship. During an inspection, he was able to conceal himself in a footwell. When the back door of the lorry opened, Hermon did not have a clue where he was but he ran, escaping from the confused-looking driver. He arrived in a city, and started looking for Eritrean people. It was clear he was in the United Kingdom but he did not speak the language or even understand the alphabet.
One of his travelling companions had the phone number of a relative in Manchester and after he communicated with an unsuspecting passerby on the phone, the relative was able to establish he was in Liverpool. Hermon could not believe his fortune. He knew all about Liverpool because of Rooney.
He walked into a Home Office building in the city’s business district loaded only with a few words of English.
“I am new,” he said, again and again.
In deciding to leave Ethiopia for Sudan, Hermon had left his friends behind. While one of them has remained in that country, two have settled in Egypt and Switzerland. The other boy decided to return to Eritrea and no one has heard from him since.
In Liverpool, Hermon demonstrated enough ability to enrol at a football academy, where he played matches against the youth teams of some of the most famous clubs in England’s north west. Having claimed political asylum, he now combines studying for a degree in business management with a full-time job at a warehouse.
He also now speaks English — with a Scouse accent.
“Talent is not the problem in Eritrea,” he stresses. “We’d make it into the top 100 in the world if everything made sense. But nothing makes sense.”
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)