Shirt stories: Eritrea and Syria - shirts straight from a civil war

Sascha Duerkop July 5, 2020
Shirt stories: Eritrea and Syria - shirts straight from a civil war
Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Sascha Duerkop is a football shirt collector who owns over 500 national team shirts. In ‘Shirt stories’ he recounts the tales of five of his prized possessions.

The Red Sea Boys, as the Eritrean national team is nicknamed, are not exactly the strongest FIFA member in Africa. They have never made it to an Africa Cup of Nations, let alone a World Cup and usually are the whipping boys of the East African CECAFA Cup, where they only made it out of the group stages twice (in 2007 and 2019). When they went to Uganda to play the 2019, edition, they were ranked 205th in the FIFA rankings. Only the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, San Marino and Anguilla were considered worse.

The history of the national team, however, is as dramatic as that of the whole country. Eritrea is usually ranked as the least free country in the world, often tied with Turkmenistan and North Korea and sometimes even worse than these two. The main issue for Eritreans is usually forced military service, which is closer to forced labour than military training and might continue as long as the dictator sees fit.

As a result, thousands of Eritreans flee the country, and national team players are no different. Players started to disappear from team hotels in 2007, when 12 members of the national side took refuge in Tanzania after the CECAFA Cup in Tanzania. Another six stayed in Angola the year after, following an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier match. In 2012, 17 players and the team doctor vanished after the CECAFA Cup in Uganda and applied for refugee status. Not helpful for building a strong squad, but very understandable.

Eritrea shirt in action.

For a collector like me, that obviously means that getting an Eritrea shirt is really tough. Almost nothing is getting in or out of the country and football shirts are no exception. But during my research, I became aware of an interesting figure, who will be central to this article: Dorian Marin.

The Romanian coach took over the Eritrean Under-17 and A national team in 2006 and left it in 2007 when his players started to run away. He arguably was the most successful coach in the history of Eritrea and helped the nation climb 56 positions within the year of his reign. He helped the Under-17s qualify for the U-17 African Cup after beating Egypt and Zambia on the way, the only ever continental tournament any Eritrean squad has ever qualified for, and almost made it to the adult Africa Cup of Nations, too. His team finished second only to Angola, beating Kenya and Angola once each on the way.

There was an issue, though: when I started looking for the Eritrea shirt, Dorian was coaching the Syrian Premier League Tishreen. It was 2011 and the Arab Spring slowly developed into a civil war in Syria. Nevertheless, the league was still running and the hostilities were still rather low-key and so Dorian indeed sent me an old Eritrean shirt he had stored in his house in Syria. Being incredibly grateful for his support, a bit of a friendship developed and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. He was married to a Syrian woman and has settled well in Lattakia, which would stay the calmest bit of Syria, where the civil war broke out and never stopped since. He stayed in Lattakia, as he could not bring his wife and kids to Europe at the time.

Marin was trapped in a war where he had no side and remained unemployed when the league halted. In 2014, he finally got a new job for the King Faisal Babies in Ghana, but left after three months, as they never paid him. As soon as football resumed in Syria, in 2016, he took over Tishreen again and finished second of the Premier League with them. He then finally left the country in 2017 and via jobs in Kenya and Nigeria he made it to Germany, where he used to live in his youth, and finally he settled with his family.

Pic by Sascha Duerkop.

What was remarkable about the story of not only the Eritrea shirt, but also a Syria shirt he sold me during the peak of the Syrian civil war, were the logistics. It’s no trivial process sending money to Syria when ISIS is getting funds from European extremists from the same direction at the same time. The Eritrea shirt came to me in the early days of the civil war when things all started to break down in Syria. Luckily, one of Dorian’s sons who lives in Germany was just visiting him in Lattakia and thus brought the shirt back and received my money in his German bank account, which was an easy workaround.

For the Syria shirt he sent me during the worst days of the Syrian war, however, things were more complex. I tried using all kind of dubious money transfer tools, but they all blocked my payment and two shut down my entire account for “possibly trying to fund terrorism”. Somehow, Western Union did not really believe me that I was buying a football shirt from a foreigner hanging out in Syria. After weeks of struggling to get my money over, Dorian basically suggested a method that terrorists would probably use: I should send the money to his German son, who will wire it to a mate in England, who would send it to someone in a third country and then on to him. It worked, and only six weeks later I received a box full of Assad stamps thoroughly checked by the German tax authorities!

Pic by Sascha Duerkop.

If you ever get to browse the collection of a national team collector and you see a very boring Eritrea or Syria match-worn shirt in it, try to think about the story that might be behind it. Terror-network-like money transfers and forwarded parcels are not completely uncommon in this world of collecting rare polyesters. And while I see where Western Union is coming from when they question my transfers to war zones or strangers from Tajikistan (“do you know him from the internet?`” – “yes”), there are indeed valid, albeit weird, reasons to make such transfers.

I am glad that I could help Dorian make some money while in Syria by buying shirts off him and find others to do the same, and I am even more grateful that he helped me get that elusive Eritrea shirt in the early days.

[Read more: Shirt stories: Why I collected 500 national football shirts]

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Sascha Düerkop is a German mathematician, economist, football maniac, geography nerd and traveller. He has travelled to most unrecognised countries and way beyond, organised football tournaments for not-quite-states and has over 500 football national team shirts in his wardrobe.