Citizen of Nowhere
Luciano Vassallo was Ethiopia’s greatest players but he rarely found acceptance
The history of Harnet Avenue reveals the history of the whole city of Asmara. The main artery of the Eritrean capital was traced in 1925 and named after Benito Mussolini. At the time, its main function was to segregate the reparto indigeni (“native section”) from the Italian residential area. Through the years, Harnet Avenue would change its name at every milestone of the history of Eritrea and Ethiopia. After the end of the Fascist colonial occupation of Eastern Africa it became Corso Italia, then it changed its name again into Avenue Haile Selassie after the annexation of Eritrea by the Ethiopian Empire in 1962. When the Emperor was overthrown by a military council and a communist regime was installed, the name changed to National Avenue and finally, after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, it settled on the current denomination, Harnet Avenue (“Freedom Avenue”).
This stratification of names is a testament of the multifaceted and fragmentary identity of Asmara and Eritrea, their soul and identity still scattered and scarred by the colonisation and decolonisation process. The gravitational pull of the imperialist ambitions of Europe and the conspiracies and intrigues of the millenary Ethiopian Empire would shape the destinies and identities of the individuals and nations of what, for a handful of years, came to be known as Italian East Africa. Football was not an exception. The biggest triumph in Ethiopia’s footballing history was led by an Eritrea-born mixed race footballer with an Italian name, Luciano Vassallo. His story is one of discrimination, repression, redemption and exile.
One of the main buildings on Harnet Avenue is a movie theatre. Its name, Cinema Impero, preserves the language and the imperial aspiration of Eritrea’s former colonial occupiers, Fascist Italy. It was built in 1937 by the architect Mario Messina and there is a building with the same name, built by the same architect in the same year, in the popular Roman neighbourhood of Tor Pignattara, now an area with a sizeable Bengali and Chinese population. The Cinema Impero is one of the most powerful inheritances of the Italian presence in Asmara. In 1935 the city had been chosen by the Italian military as a platform for the invasion of the Ethiopian Empire; a decision which would transform the city, its colonial population swelling from four thousand to over seventy thousand inhabitants as civilians, soldiers and mercenaries were moved there. Such expansion needed to be supported by a large-scale architectural project. Young Italian architects were called to Eastern Africa and could experiment with the forms of Art Deco, Futurism and Rationalism.
While the Cinema Impero is a part of the imposing architectural inheritance of the Fascist occupation, Luciano Vassallo represents a part of its most uneasy side effects. Luciano was the son of a Tuscan soldier of the Italian rifle regiment, Vittorio Vassallo, and an Eritrean woman called Mebrak Abraham. He was part of the large mixed-race population of Asmara: as 1000 Italian men settled in the city and in the whole colony, many would find relief in a relationship with a local woman, the madama. In the Italian language, these relationships were labelled as madamato or, in the Libyan colony, mabruchismo (from the Arabic word mabrukah, indicating a woman engaging in such a relationship).
Initially the practice of madamato was encouraged, as it was viewed as a preferable option to prostitution. But the Italian government gradually started to sweep this phenomenon under the carpet. The first step was a royal decree outlawing madamato and punishing the practice with imprisonment of between one and five years. The royal decree dates back to April 1937, one year before the infamous Racial Laws were issued by Benito Mussolini. In May 1940 another law outlawed “the adoption and affiliation of natives and mixed-race children”, condemning the offspring of the Italian occupiers to a fate of abandonment, poverty and rejection. This would be Luciano’s fate as well, since his father Vittorio lost contact after being transferred to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1937.
A street kid living by his wits, making what he could from odd jobs, Luciano Vassallo started playing football in the slums of Asmara. His first experience of organised football came as he knocked on the doors of the Collegio La Salle, a religious school standing alongside the Catholic Cathedral of Asmara on Harnet Avenue, close to the Cinema Impero. The school team was called Stella Asmarina (“Asmara Star”), its black and white jerseys a statement about the identity of the team, formed exclusively of mixed race Italo-Eritreans. The club had been founded by the Cathedral’s Vicarage Apostolic as a reaction to the marginalisation of mixed-race kids, rejected by their Italian fathers and at the same time ostracised by other Eritreans as children of the oppressor.
Luciano Vassallo started playing as a left-back for Stella Asmarina, but his stint with the black-and-whites didn’t last long: the team didn’t match his ambitions and he started to attract the attention of other clubs. Discussions with the railway team Gruppo Sportivo Ferrovieri landed him a job as a repairman on the Eritrean Railways. His final choice, though, fell on the white and light blue shirts of Gejeret (or Gaggiret). Gejeret was a very special team in the Eritrean league: all players were locally born, coming from difficult walks of life. Nonetheless, they were glued together by an extraordinary team spirit and they contributed to the club’s budget with their meagre resources through a small weekly collection. The mastermind behind the team was the charismatic coach Tzahaye Bahre, an employee of the Eritrean football federation who would later become assistant coach to the Ethiopian national team. Vassallo would play with Gejeret from 1953 to 1958, gaining promotion to the highest division with an emphatic 4-0 win against Gruppo Sportivo Visintini (one of the Italian teams) and earning his first call-ups for Ethiopia.
Vassallo’s next transfer would bring him to face the part of his heritage borne by his surname. At the end of the 1950s, Luciano was offered a contract by Gruppo Sportivo Asmara, one of the Italian teams based in the capital. Sergio Soragna, the president of the club, had offered him 600 Ethiopian dollars for the transfer and a job at the Imperial Highway Authority. It was too good an offer to pass up, giving Vassallo a chance to support his mother and his two younger half-siblings, Italo and Lina.
GS Asmara had been founded as Dopolavoro Cicero, a after-work association connected to the Italian entrepreneur Francesco Cicero and one of the first teams of the Fascist colony. According to the book Lo Sport Eritreo: questioni di identità ed orgoglio [“Eritrean Sport: a Question of Identity and Pride”] by the Italian researcher Marco Bagozzi, the orange jerseys of Dopolavoro Cicero took part in the first ever Eritrean championship (incorporated in the Italian league system as a fourth division) in 1937-38. Francesco Cicero had moved to Eritrea in 1915, setting up a number of businesses between Asmara and the Red Sea port town of Massawa: “a furniture factory, a glaziery, a big bazaar in the main street of Asmara. In Massawa […] a big bazaar and the Lido, with a restaurant and a piano-bar, where he contributed to promote the famous singer Renato Carosone,” as his son Roberto recalled in Mai Taclì, one of the magazines of Italo-Eritreans.
Dopolavoro Cicero soon changed its name to Gruppo Sportivo Asmara and its colours to red and blue (later red and black), as the team went on to win three league titles in 1945, 1947 and 1948 under the coaching of Enzo Artioli. When Vassallo joined the club, the team was captained by Massimo Fenili, a central figure to the Italian sport scene in Asmara, dubbed “The Eritrean Herrera”. His family had moved to Asmara soon after he’d been born in Lucca and he would contribute to the city’s sporting life until the 1974 coup convinced him to return to Italy. Fenili would become Eritrean champion in basketball, volleyball, table-tennis and boccette (a popular cueless Italian billiards game), while also leading GS Asmara to two Eritrean football league titles as a player (1963 and 1964) and two Ethiopian league titles as a coach (1972 and 1973, with a further title in 1974 with Ambassoira), catching the attention of Italian sports newspapers. His career also featured a brief stint for the Italian club Bologna, for which he only played friendly matches, and appearances for the Eritrea national basketball team.
By then in his mid-twenties, Vassallo came of age as a player while wearing the colours of GS Asmara. His left the defensive line to become an astute advanced playmaker. He wove patterns of play masterfully, but he had also become an insidious shooter. A successful team, during the run-up to the 1959 Africa Cup of Nations GS Asmara had managed to humiliate the Ethiopia national team in a friendly match. A picture of the 1960 GS Asmara squad is featured on the Mai Taclì: among 10 white faces wearing the team’s vertical-striped black and red jersey, Luciano Vassallo’s light brown skin stands out. The choice of joining the club hadn’t been an easy one: the former occupiers were now in disgrace and the club was targeted by public abuse and biased refereeing. Vassallo would be called a traitor by his own people.
The story of Luciano Vassallo is a story of names that change, tracing history in their transformations. This isn’t true only for Harnet Avenue. The main sports ground in Asmara is the Cicero Stadium. The venue was inaugurated on 29 September 1938 by Francesco Cicero to stage matches played by his team.
In 1949 the stadium was donated to the Italian Red Cross as a way of preventing it falling under the control of the English, the new administrators of the country. The venue was later to take the name of Ras Alula, a legendary military leader of the Ethiopian Army at the end of the 19th century. Ras Alula had famously defeated the Italian Army in Dogali and in the Adwa rout of 1896, the latter causing outrage and turmoil in Italy as theatres and universities were closed and the Italian prime minister Francesco Crispi was forced to resign. The new name of the stadium highlighted the forced union between Eritrea and Ethiopia which culminated in the annexation of 1962. Since 1953 the Eritrean football league had been merged into the Ethiopian league system. Three Eritrean teams had joined opponents from the Shewa and Harar regions in an eight-team league: football would frequently be exploited by the annexed as an opportunity to vent their opposition to the Ethiopian occupation and the Imperial regime.
At the time, Eritrea had fewer than 1.5 million inhabitants, while Ethiopia’s population was almost 23 million. Nonetheless, Eritrea could boast a good sporting tradition, an inheritance of the Italian occupation: initially local teams had played in separate tournaments, called “Propaganda”, but the sport soon spread. Marco Bagozzi cites a 1936 article printed in Il Littoriale, an important fascist sport magazine: “The indigenous population stands out for its infernal bedlam. The little devils – so are the small blacks called – are the true football fanatics. They have immediately been conquered by the cause of sport, they have their idols and endeavour to imitate them.”
Hamasien had been the first local team to play in a league against the Italians during the 1940s, and had finished second in the league in 1946, level with the defending champions GS Asmara. Their most important player was Abraha Gizaw (or Ighzaw), a free-kick specialist described by Vassallo as “a true champion, the master of a generation” in an interview with Bagozzi. Gizaw was the first local footballer to wear the colours of an Italian team in Eritrea. According to a 1952 article on Eritrean sports by Enrico Mania, one of the principal Italian journalists in east Africa, Gizaw had also come close to a transfer to Fiorentina, although according to the author he hadn’t been “able to finalise the move for reasons of race”. In a memoir published in 2005, Enrico Mania also discusses the political inclinations of the Hamasien football club, which became a rallying point for philo-Ethiopian unionists: “Identifying in Hamasien the principles of unionism also meant rejecting colonialism at its root, as the name […] historically defined the northern part of the historical Ethiopia, which had become Eritrea during the colonial years.”
In the first seven years after the merger with the Ethiopian league, a team from the occupied territories won the league four times. Hamasien triumphed in 1955 and 1957, while Akkele Guzay won in 1958 and Telecommunications Sports Club (the new name of Gejeret) in 1959. Such was the quality of Eritrean players that during the 1950s and 1960s most of the national team was made up of players originating from the annexed zones. Among them was Vassallo, his first call-up coming in 1956. In the national team Vassallo had to face another kind of discrimination, that of Ethiopians against Eritreans. It was an uneasy relationship which was epitomised by Luciano’s conflicting relations with the godfather of Ethiopian football Ydnekatchew Tessema, one of the founding figures of football in the African continent1.
Ydnekatchew Tessema was the son of the Negadras (“head of the merchants”, a city prefect) Tessema Eshete, an outstanding figure in Ethiopian culture and politics. In an essay featured in the Proceedings of the XVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, the researcher Wolfgang Bender of Mainz University describes Tessema Eshete as an “Ethiopian musician, singer, poet, artist and imperial adviser as well as inventor”. In 1908 he had been sent to Germany by Emperor Menelik to train as an automobile driver and mechanic: once in Europe, he had the chance to record 16 or 17 music discs, the first ever recordings of Ethiopian lyrics. In literature, Eshete is regarded as a seminal poet, the master of a peculiar Ethiopian style of poetry, the Qene, based on the double meanings of Amharic words. Also called Sem ena Werq (“wax and gold”), the Qene consisted in hiding behind the “wax” of the literal meaning of a poem the “gold” of a more profound meaning. Between 1913 and 1916 Eshete became a minister of Post, Telegraphs and Telephones under the regency of Iyasu V, who would be overthrown in a conspiracy by Zewditu and her cousin Tafari Makonnen, later to become Emperor under the name of Haile Selassie. Eshete was sentenced to 23 years of house arrest, his Qene compositions both expressing his sympathy for fellow prisoners and directing sarcastic remarks at the conspirators, hidden under the “wax” of a pledge of mercy to Zewditu and Haile Selassie. His sentence was lifted as the Fascist occupation interrupted the reign of Haile Selassie (who would be exiled to England for five years), enabling Eshete to record some more of his songs for posterity.
Eshete’s son, Ydnekatchew Tessema, made history by scoring more than 300 goals playing for Saint George of Addis Ababa. A yellow shirt with a red “V” on the chest, the colours of Saint George were the only Tessema would wear in his whole 23-season-long career. It wasn’t a team like any other, as had been demonstrated after the end of the Fascist occupation. At the time Ethiopians weren’t allowed to play with Europeans (which tended to mean Italian settlers and Greek or Armenian refugees) because of the Fascist racial policies and local teams had been given Italian names such as Villa Italia, Piazza Roma, Consolata or, in Saint George’s case, Littorio. The segregation ended with the Fascist defeat of 1941 at the hands of the Allies and Saint George could finally exact their vengeance on the pitch, beating the Italian team Fortitudo 4-2 in the first match played between locals and former occupants, organised by Tessema himself in 1942.
When he retired as a player in the mid-1950s, Ydnekatchew Tessema became a football administrator and politician, noted for his cunning, and a founding father of both the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and of the Africa Cup of Nations, which was played for the first time in 1957. Against the backdrop of decolonisation, African states formed their own autonomous football associations, Tessema devoted his life to shaping a distinct identity for football on the African continent. The president of CAF from 1972 until his death in 1987, he fought strenuously for the exclusion of segregationist South Africa from international sporting competition, as well as for the preservation of an amateur ethos. He also strongly opposed advertising by tobacco or alcohol companies at sporting events. One of his more important battles was to secure African representation at the World Cup, a battle so tense it would lead to the boycott of the 1966 World Cup by African sides. Nonetheless, Tessema proved a controversial character, often accused of managing football as a feudal system and, according to Luciano Vassallo, of hindering Eritrean footballers in the national team in order to favour Ethiopians, and specifically Saint George players.
On 24 June 1960, after playing for two seasons with Gruppo Sportivo Asmara, Vassallo had the chance of moving to the Cotton Factory Club of Dire Dawa, in the Harar region. The reigning Ethiopian champions wished to strengthen their team further by signing him and his younger half-brother Italo, who had proved to be an inspired striker playing for Hamasien. Both Italo and his sister Lina were the children of Luciano’s mother Mebrak Abraham and another man, but they were registered by Luciano with the surname of his own father at a church in Asmara. Antonio Felici, in his biography of Luciano Stella d’Africa [“Africa Star”], explained, “They had all become Vassallo, because their destiny was the same. May the unwelcoming Italy at least give them a surname. […] Not a pack of stray half-breeds, but the Vassallo family.”
The first season in Dire Dawa ended in disappointment, as Cotton Club were unable to defend their title against their city rivals Ethio Cement. The two Dire Dawa teams dominated the Ethiopian league between 1960 and 1965, Cotton Club winning three titles with the Vassallo brothers on the pitch (in 1962, 1963 and 1965). The team would also reach the semi-finals of the inaugural African Champions’ Cup, going down 3-1 to Stade Malien in Kumasi, Ghana. Two of the Stade Malien goals was scored by the legendary striker Salif Keïta,. Two years later he made a clandestine escape from Mali and his team Real Bamako, catching a flight from Monrovia, Liberia, and then taking a taxi to Saint Étienne, where he would score 125 goals in 149 matches, win three back-to-back French league titles and become the first winner of the African Ballon d’Or.
The real peak in the careers of the Vassallo brothers was the third Africa Cup of Nations, played in Addis Ababa in January 1962 in front of Emperor Haile Selassie. The tournament was held in what was a moment of grace for Ethiopian sport, which had been thrust into the spotlight two years earlier by the gold medal won by the barefoot marathon runner Abebe Bikila at the Rome Olympics. One year before that, in the previous edition of the Cup of Nations, Ethiopia’s performance had been hugely disappointing: they had been defeated by both the United Arab Republic2 and Sudan in a three-team tournament, and had conceded five goals in two matches without scoring. The disappointment convinced Ydnekatchew Tessema to relax his policies of discrimination against Eritreans, who made up more than half the squad. Tessema did, however, try to deprive Luciano of the captaincy, granting him the armband only after the Ethiopian striker Mengistu Worku had risen in defence of his teammate.
Worku is considered the best player in the history of Ethiopian football. By all counts he was the natural heir of Tessema: Worku also spent his entire career at Saint George, scoring bucketloads of goals with his speed, technique and aerial ability. His father had been a Fit’awrari, a commander of the Ethiopian Army, and had lost his life in an ambush by Italian soldiers. In order to avoid further reprisals against the family by the Italians, the eight-year-old Mengistu had been moved to the Imperial palace in Addis Ababa following a personal order from Haile Selassie.
The 1962 Africa Cup of Nations featured just four teams. It was played in a stadium named after Haile Selassie, kicked off with Ethiopia beating Tunisia 4-2 in the first semi-final, thanks to a brace from Luciano Vassallo and goals by Worku and Tekle Kidane, a former teammate of Luciano at Gejeret. In the other semi-final, the United Arab Republic came from behind to beat Uganda 2-1. The UAR/Egypt had won both of the previous two tournaments and had beaten Ethiopia 4-0 in each of them. In the inaugural tournament in 1957 the two teams had met in the final, all four goals being scored by Mohamed Diab al-Attar, better known as ad-Diba, who died of a heart-attack in December 2016 at the age of 89 in his native Alexandria. The top goalscorer of the first Egyptian championship in 1948-49, he remained loyal to his hometown club al-Ittihad until retiring in 1958 to become a referee, and continued to support the club, organising a concert by the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum as a fundraiser to prevent it from going bankrupt.
The United Arab Republic struck first in Addis Ababa, opening the scoring in the 35th minute against a nervous Ethiopian team with a goal from the Tersana striker Badawi Abdel Fattah. The Ethiopians hit back in the second half, Tekle Kidane scoring an equaliser with 15 minutes to go, only for Badawi almost immediately to restore the UAR lead. With six minutes still to play, Vassallo equalised once again, crushing UAR morale. In extra-time, Ethiopia were rampant against exhausted opponents: Italo Vassallo and Worku added a goal each to make the final result 4-2 and seal Ethiopia’s first and only major international football triumph.
Luciano Vassallo had been the joint top scorer, level with the Egyptian Badawi, and was also named best player of the tournament. It was he, the mixed-race son of an Italian soldier, who received the Africa Cup of Nations trophy from the Emperor Haile Selassie, Negus Negesti, king of kings. The fates of the Abyssinian Emperor and of Luciano crossed: lost in admiration of the man he still calls the best head of state in human history, Vassallo couldn’t possibly have imagined how close their destinies would be twelve years later, and how he would be deprived of the honour of having scored those goals and having won that prize.
“Even though the people treated the throne in good faith as a symbol of unity, Haile Selassie I took advantage of its authority, dignity and honour for his own personal ends. As a result, the country found itself in a state of poverty and disintegration. Moreover, an 82-year-old monarch, because of his age, is incapable of meeting his responsibilities. Therefore His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I is being deposed as of 12 September 1974 and power assumed by the Provisional Military Committee. Ethiopia above all!”
With these words the Derg military committee announced via radio the deposition of the Negus, who was imprisoned in the old Menelik imperial palace. Haile Selassie lived his final months in the palace, convinced he was still the Emperor of Ethiopia: a delusion he would maintain until the day of his death, 28 August 1975. In the last years of his reign, Haile Selassie had been oblivious to the poverty of his country, to the famine that had killed as many as 40,000 people in the north-eastern Wollo region and to the widespread corruption in the imperial palace.
After four days of rioting in Addis Ababa, an Army mutiny had spread from Asmara to the whole country and the Derg, a junta composed of Marxist-leaning low-ranking officials, took the opportunity to depose the man who had ruled Ethiopia for 58 years. The so-called “red terror” which followed the installation of the Derg regime claimed the lives of at least half a million Ethiopians. In 2007 the leader of the committee, the “Red Negus” Mengistu Haile Mariam, was found guilty of genocide along with dozens of other Derg officials. Mengistu Haile Mariam was condemned in absentia, having been given sanctuary by Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
When the Negus fell, Luciano Vassallo had already quit playing. After earning his coaching badges in the Italian technical centre of Coverciano along with Armando Picchi, Cesare Maldini and Luís Vinício, he had gradually turned from playing to coaching. He had also moved to Addis Ababa (with a brief and unsuccessful stint at Saint George), where he had purchased an authorised Volkswagen garage from an Armenian mechanic. The new regime had many reasons to despise him: he was wealthy, he was mixed race, he was Eritrean, he had many foreign connections and had been a friend of some members of the imperial family. The final straw came in 1976, after he was stripped of his duties as coach of the Ethiopia national team and replaced by the German Peter Schnittger: his denouncement of the use of the amphetamine Captagon by national team players definitively cast him as an enemy of the new regime.
One day, one of the Army’s Volkswagens stopped by his garage to take him away. It could easily have been the end for Vassallo, had it not been for one colonel: the officer recognised his footballing hero and let him go. But the episode made Vassallo more cautious, even though he was called on to lead the national team again. His last match in charge was a historic win over East Germany in 1978. Two weeks later he went to his garage in the morning, paid all his employees’ wages and headed to Djibouti. From there he embarked on a flight via Cairo to Rome, where he had sent his family to safety some months earlier.
The Vassallo brothers didn’t receive any gratitude for writing one of the most glorious pages of Abyssinian sport. Italo, who had remained in Addis Ababa, where he managed a restaurant, was deported to Eritrea during the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998, along with 77,000 other co-nationals. Luciano’s name, after his defection, was erased from all archives and official documents by the Derg, the memory of his achievements obliterated. More importantly, he was forced to struggle with another identity, with exile and with the need to stay afloat in a new and unfamiliar country. Vassallo had to scrap to keep his family united against tragedies and grave illnesses. He began by repairing cars on the Ostia seashore, then opened his own garage and went on to get the passport of the country which had rejected him when he was two years old. He found shelter in the hinterland of Rome, the city whose imperial ambition had brought so much suffering and so many struggles in his life, and has never stopped telling his story.
It’s hard to define Luciano Vassallo’s identity. An Eritrean, an Ethiopian, an Italian. An African, a person of mixed race. An exile, an outcast. A champion.