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A chilly autumn evening in Gorinchem, a picturesque Dutch city about 30 km east of Rotterdam. The last rays of the setting sun cast a golden glow on the black tarmac of the Kleine Schelluinsekade, a typical example of a Dutch straight-as-an-arrow road alongside a tree-lined canal and a windmill up ahead. And a touch of Africa. For there comes pedaling on his bike Samuel 'Sami' Alazar, goalie and former member of the Eritrean national squad, snowy white Nikes on his feet and already wearing his football kit.
Africa in the Dutch Polders by Herman Joustra Photography: Thijs Brouwers
He stops at the gates to the Molenvliet sports park, where football club SVW is based, and stays seated on his bike, a sturdy U2 Cortina. He is the first to arrive, the gates are still closed. He takes out his mobile to contact his mates on the Dutch Soccer Team Eritrea, the new moniker for the former national team of the East African country who now do their training at the SVW grounds. It’s only a short wait, for not a minute later Daniel Goitom, the team’s other goalkeeper, arrives on his bike, his gloves secure under the carrier straps. And there we have Aman Habteslus, on his Multicycle bike. “Nice bike, right? All of us on the team got one from the mayor.”
A nice gesture from the mayor of the blue-collar city where the Eritrean national squad finally settled in May. Sixteen team members in all, plus the team’s doctor and a sister of one of the players, traded the palms of Asmara for the elms of Gorinchem. In December 2012 the group defected after playing an international tournament in Uganda, from where they moved to Romania, in search of a better life. In the end, the Dutch government extended a lifeline to them, granting them political asylum and obviating the need to go through lengthy procedures. They were extremely lucky: only 500 refugees are granted legal status every year, most of them through the mediation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The players will not, on any account, discuss politics in their home country or their reasons for fleeing. It’s because they’re likely to be under close surveillance from the Eritrean consulate in The Hague, they say, and they fear for the lives of the family members they left behind in Eritrea. But apart from that they are happy to chatter about all manner of things. About the injera, a kind of pancake served and topped with vegetables, herbs and – usually – meat stews, the quintessential Eritrean national dish, which they just prepared at home. About the best Dutch food (“kebab, yummy”), the Dutch language (“very hard”), about the cold, but mostly about how their footballing careers took such an unexpected turn.
At one time they were professional football players in Eritrea, even though their salaries were trifling; these days they are unpaid amateur players in a Dutch provincial town, earning no match bonuses and living on welfare. A free bike is bound to make you happy then. “Of course,” Habteslus says, laughing. “Though the difference is not as big as you might think. Back in Eritrea, we’d often bike to practice too, taking the car only the odd time.”
But isn’t the Netherlands the country where immigrants are given biking classes? Well, maybe, but Eritreans don’t need any municipality-appointed coach to teach them how to ride a bike. For over fifty years, between 1885 and 1941, Eritrea was a colony of Italy, causing its inhabitants to develop a taste for cappuccino, the occasional pizza and, above all, cycling.
“Yeah, they’re dead chuffed with those bikes,” counsellor Sjaak Pellikaan confirms, gently putting down a few white plastic garden chairs on the sideline to watch practice from. “As they are with the kits and boots a sponsor provided for them.” Pellikaan is a local police officer who’s taken an interest in the lot of the Eritreans from the moment they arrived. “They came here with almost nothing and it’s still hard for them. They have to make ends meet on a few tenners a week, including their clothing allowance. So every little bit of help and support is welcome for them.”
Pellikaan took the squad under his wing over six months ago, together with club manager Robertino Lotto. “At the time, Robertino was SVW’s technical coordinator, not yet its manager. So I had a lark with him, saying this was his chance to become the manager of a national team. He actually relished the idea. The problem was, we had no idea of their level of play. One rung below top amateur level, perhaps two? Well, suffice to say our jaws dropped in utter surprise. Their passing speed, their combination play, it was just amazing. We knew instantly that theirs was way above any level we had ever managed. Robertino immediately guessed they could play at the highest amateur level, if not higher. Still, that was only practice. Exactly how they would hold up when facing a team of burly, hairy-legged Dutchmen was anybody’s guess. By now we have played eighteen matches or so and things are going very well. We beat Sparta Rotterdam’s U21 team, lost narrowly to RKC’s and Willem II’s youth teams, creating but squandering one opportunity after the other. But that’s no surprise, as we don’t really have a good striker.” Laughing: “He was the only one who did return to Eritrea from Uganda.”
Darkness has set in with practice in full swing. The moon’s crescent is suspended above the glittering artificial turf like a gleaming pendant. “I prefer real grass,” Hermon Tecleab says. “The ball bounces differently, rolls differently. Better, if you ask me. But it’s not like we are not used to playing on artificial turf, you know. We’d sometimes play on it in Eritrea too.”
That would be at the Cicero Stadium in capital Asmara then, home to the clubs Red Sea FC, Adulis, Hintsa and Edaga Hamus, as well as the national team. Back in Eritrea, key player Tecleab was admired for his fine technical skills and his ability to read the game but is unlikely to play any international again, having fled his native country. He is now quietly hoping to continue his career in the Netherlands. “Yes of course I want that, I’m a professional. Football is my life.”
That goes for his team mates as well. They run up and down the field as if possessed, firing one shot after another at the two goalies, Alazar and Goitom, who in turn leap from left to right top corner and back laughing and crying in innocent pleasure. Beaming, Lotto watches them. “It’s an absolute pleasure working with them. You never hear them using expletives or cussing at one another, they’re friends through and through, on and off the pitch. We have four training sessions a week, but if it were up to them, we’d be practising every day. And when I want to call it a day after two hours, they’d rather go on. They’re bursting with energy. In a positive way, that is. And they’re pretty good football players to boot.”
That fact did not go unnoticed for long, Pellikaan found out quickly. “After the first match against Kozakken Boys, a top-league amateur side, that club came to us with a list of four of our players they wouldn’t mind signing up. Hermon was one of them. We graciously declined the offer at the time, but we have changed our minds since. You cannot stop these boys from leaving, not with their skills. I really believe the team will start falling apart in a few months’ time.”
Tilburg-based Eredivisie side Willem II, against whose U21 squad the Dutch Soccer Team Eritrea impressed despite a 2-1 loss, is said to have made a tentative offer for Tecleab’s services. “Oh, he could definitely play at that level,” Pellikaan says frankly. “He, and maybe a few others on this team too. In my opinion they can easily play in one of the lower-rung Eredivisie clubs, or one of the clubs at the top of the Jupiler League, the second tier of Dutch professional football.”
That’s for the future, however. Right now, the Eritreans would love to show off their skills in a top amateur side. Unfortunately, even that is off limits to them. Pellikaan: “We’d like to set up a Sunday team for them, as the club doesn’t have one yet. The trouble is, the team would have to start all the way at the bottom of the amateur leagues, which is far below their level. The club’s board asked the Dutch football association for dispensation, so they could start playing three or four tiers up, but this request was denied. In that case it would take three, four years for the team to play at an acceptable level. An alternative request, for the team to be assigned to one of the professional U21 leagues, was denied as well.”