20 January 2013

Ethiopia: Not Only History, Football Often Repeats Itself

Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
After a number of thwarted chances at goal, Ethiopian striker Saladin Said supplied the ball which enabled Adane Girma to score Ethiopia's first goal at the Cup of Nations in 30 years.


Last Saturday, a special fundraising and farewell banquet was held at the Millennium Hall, accompanied with speeches by prominent government officials, including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

The occasion was organised to honour the Ethiopian national football contingent, leaving forSouth Africato participate in the 29th African Cup of Nations games, which kicked off yesterday.

The occasion was also used to convey the trust that the Ethiopian people bestowed upon their team (the Walias) to accomplish their goal with good sportsmanship, whilst wearing the national flag with pride and dignity among their African brothers.

Many people tend to amplifyEthiopia's 31 year absence from the tournament, forgetting the unwavering role played by the nation over the years since the first inaugural meeting in 1957. Not to forget hosting the sixth and 10th Cup of Nations and winning the third, whilst also being the host country.Ethiopia's influence on the Cup is clear for all to see.

The African Cup of Nations was established on the basis of amateurism, free from politics and government intervention, to bring Africans together without any distinction of colour, creed or gender.

In line with this view,Ethiopiafought tooth and nail to banSouth Africafrom the Cup during its years of apartheid rule. The Ethiopian delegation, headed by Yidnekatchew Tessema, not only fought racism, but also other abuses affecting the sound physical development of youth.

All commercials and posters designed to promote the sale of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol were banned from football fields, in addition to sponsoring football leagues and promoting their predates, despite the financial offers extended by such companies. Yidenekachew stood his ground in the fight, so much so that he was amicably called the 'Rock of Gibraltar'. Some countries have even dedicated streets and football grounds in his name as a tribute, and as recognition ofEthiopia's role in promoting and consolidating the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

As a testimony to the core belief of the Cup of Nations,Ethiopiais now going to aSouth Africathat is free from racism, holding her head high with pride and unity.

But Ethiopians, almost intrinsically, seem to be characteristically shy and rather weak when it comes to publically acknowledging their achievements. A recent remark made by Arsenal's coach, Arsene Wenger, can be cited as evidence of this.

When asked by a journalist if he intended to scout for new players at the African Cup of Nations, he threw back the question to the reporter, asking him to name five or six players from the Ethiopian squad. The implication was clear. The French footballing genius was diplomatically stating that Ethiopians are unknown in the world of football.

A gullible local reporter asked the Ethiopian national team coach, Sewnet Bishaw, to give him his views on Arsene Wenger's remarks. It is a pity that they are unaware ofEthiopia's unflinching support to the CAF and its athletic achievement in the Olympic Games. However, Wenger's remarks did not offend him.

In fact, Sewnet seemed to applaud Wenger's lack of knowledge and even said that he would 'tell his boys' about it. Team signings and striking deals are private matters, and the indulgence of a national coach, in a country that lives by the ideals and basic principles of amateurism, is all but incomprehensible, to say the least.

The lack of amateurism and yearning for money has become a driving motivation, even among members of the Walias. The sickness, if one could figuratively say so, seems to be pandemic and is believed to have come fromWest Africa, where players often boycott games should they not receive the remuneration they desire.

The Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) was said to have succumbed to the Wailas, when the members were suspected to call a strike and abandon their training programmes, if the promised money, under the guise of a prize, was not distributed rapidly. A special committee had to toil day and night to work out the criteria for the disbursement of the money, effect the payment and bring the players back to work, albeit with visible discrepancies in the financial structures.

The football gurus do not seem to learn from their faults. Last weekend, at the Millennium Hall, the five million Birr donation made by the business tycoon Mohammed Al-Amoudi (Sheikh) for the whole squad was unashamedly disbursed unevenly, without any explanation for the discrepancy.

Betraying the principles of good sportsmanship and amateurism is a dishonor as it is, but displaying favouritism on this scale reveals that the officials running the football federation are not qualified to carry the burden of responsibility, in moving the federation forward.

Favouritism and club mindedness, rather than Ethiopianism were also displayed, on the field, when the national squad playedTanzanialast week. That day, the spectators had to voice their protests against some local players who were too greedy to pass the ball to Yusuf Sala, in particular, who was positioning himself regularly in good areas.

Some spectators, in a fit of envy, even went as far as calling out obscenities and slandering professionals that were outshining others. What people fail to realise is thatEthiopiais not the only country calling on nationals from wherever they may be to play in the national team. The main objective is to play as a team and in the spirit of unison.

The impact of the two professional players on the rest of the team was obvious. Yusuf and Fuad Ibrahim, who came from leagues inSwedenand theUnited States, respectively, wasted no time in filling in the gaps left by the locals and controlling the ball in areas where there is usually only blind panic.

In one particular game, Yusuf proved his skills when crossing the ball from an angle on the left flank, lifting it up for a header by Shimelis Bekele; the curling ball came around with such a precision that Shemelis found the back of the net with a sharply angled header.

As in most games, the final objective is to score a goal and nothing else matters. Dribbling the ball back and forth with short passes in between has become history. The squad has to play with team spirit. What is needed is determination. Who would have thought that the great Abebe Bikila would run 42 kilometres and 195 metres in just over two hours and 15 minutes barefooted?

Judging by what the Walias have achieved, during their games againstNiger,TunisiaandTanzania, victory does not seem to be too far out of reach.

Speculators have much to say about our team. Some say that they could surprise the world, like the Zambians did last year, whilst others have concluded that their participation in the tournament, after 31 years, is an achievement in itself. Still, others hope that they can easily progress into the second round.

At any rate, most of the members of the contingent aspire to prove themselves worthy of finding deals and joining the world of professional football. The question may be whether these young men know how to strike a deal.

I wish them all the best of luck!

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