(CNN) -- In Eritrea, as in most of east Africa, football -- or soccer -- is a passion. But so dire is its economic and political situation that its best players, in fact the whole national team, defected in 2009 while at a tournament in Kenya.
A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks uses "the beautiful game" to describe an ever uglier situation in this small but strategically important state in the Horn of Africa.
In a dispatch from December 2009, then-Ambassador Ronald McMullen wrote: "Many dusty streets in Asmara are filled with urchins kicking an old sock stuffed with rags back and forth between goals made of piled stones. Senior government and party officials are avid fans of the British Premier League and sometimes leave official functions early to catch key matches."
As for the missing national team, he writes: "Only the coach and an escorting colonel reportedly returned to Eritrea. (One wonders why, given their likely fate.)" The government denied any players had gone missing.
Eritrea has only known one leader since winning independence from Ethiopia in 1993 - Isaias Afwerki. And the cables assert that his mercurial and dictatorial ways are largely to blame for the country's parlous state.
In its short life, Eritrea has been involved in a ruinous border war with Ethiopia that cost thousands of lives, and is regularly accused by Western governments and the United Nations of supplying arms to Islamic militants in Somalia -- a charge raised by the ambassador with Eritrean officials.
One cable quotes a leading businessman as saying Isaias is mentally ill: "The worse things get, the more he tries to take direct control--it doesn't work."
Another cable from earlier in 2009 says bluntly: "The country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant."
"The regime is facing mounting international pressure for years of malign behavior in the neighborhood. Human rights abuses are commonplace and most young Eritreans, along with the professional class, dream of fleeing the country, even to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan," according to another dispatch.
According to the cables, the government's stock answer was to blame America "and its puppet Ethiopia" for all its troubles, with President Isaias at one point claiming that the CIA was trying to lure Eritrea's youth abroad.
There was apparently a brief initiative to improve relations soon after President Barack Obama's election, with Ambassador McMullen describing an unusual picnic he attended at the invitation of a senior Eritrean official.
"Lunch was served in a rocky gulch beneath a thorny acacia tree. The ambassador and his wife were treated to grilled sheep innards served with honey and chili sauce (but no silverware), washed down with a sour, semi-fermented traditional drink called, aptly, "sewa."
But Eritrea's alleged support for the Shabab militia - an affiliate of al Qaeda - didn't help matters.
One cable quotes the ambassador as telling Eritrean officials: "Eritrean support for Somali extremists obviates closer ties and Eritrea will be held accountable for any al-Shabaab attack on the United States."
"How do you think we would react to a major al-Shabaab terrorist attack against the United States?" the ambassador asked. "This seems to have driven home the point to our Eritrean interlocutors."
Another cable scoffs at the idea that mining gold will come to Eritrea's rescue, describing recently-discovered seams as like "Neapolitan ice cream, with a thin layer of gold atop thicker layers of copper and zinc."
In a country whose exports were worth just $14 million in 2008, even that might help.
But the ambassador concludes: "In short, there is no help on the immediate horizon for Eritrea's faltering economy."
One leaked cable also described tensions within the military, with a conference of colonels deteriorating into a serious row.
"The bone of contention? Perceived differences in the quality of the villas (often confiscated from the original owners) given to the colonels by the regime to maintain their allegiance," the cable said.
However, the cables suggest President Isaias may be in power for some time to come.
One from November 2009 concluded: "Isaias is clever, very good at operational security, and two decades younger than Mugabe," -- the Zimbabwean president who has been in power for thirty years.
"While many in Eritrea long for change, few are in a position to effect it," it said.
As for the Eritrean people, the cables suggest that their long fight for independence has made them resilient.
"Eritreans remain fiercely patriotic," it said. "In the face of deprivation and oppression, the time-tested best practice is to shut up, hunker down, and pray for rain."