Last Saturday, a tumultuous reception was accorded to the Ethiopian National Football team, a.k.a the Walias, whose performance still remains a talking point around town. The euphoria has not yet settled. It is still the subject that sport fans want to hear and talk about, and for good reason too.
The Ethiopian team had been languishing in the shadows of other African nations for a period of over three decades. All these years, one of the founding nations of the African Cup of Nations, the one-time winner of the cup and the three-time host of the games was kept apart from its sister nations, as one unable to qualify for the tournament, for one reason or another.
The national squad, although largely composed from the few contending club teams in the capital, was not absolutely free from feuds and rows among rivals, such as St George FC and Ethiopian Coffee FC, and their respective fans whose support rarely goes beyond verbal appreciation.
Many of the members of these teams, who made no secret of their desire to play football during the Dergue regime, were only able to obtain the golden opportunity of boarding a plane to the finals through their own personal defection. As a consequence, 31 years had to be gauged before the Ethiopian squad could oust their Sudanese rivals last October and earn their ticket to the 29th African Cup of Nations, held inSouth Africa.
The excitement, triggered by their breakthrough success, did not die down right away, because we are not talking about a routine game between nations. Football is instrumental. When we talk about the Cup, we are talking about a new generation - a generation that is deprived of the honor and prestige that lifting the African Cup brings with it to a founding member country. A generation that lacks playgrounds at schools or within residential compounds, and has no option, but to watch weekend television shows presenting European leagues, in order to quench their desires, whilst appreciating the star players of Manchester United or Arsenal.
When we talk about the Cup, we are also talking aboutEthiopia's rightful place inAfricaand that of the social, political and economic rule of the country. Many Ethiopians had only dreamt of participating in the tournament. When the Walias made it, defeating their Sudanese counterparts, it was nothing short of a dream come true.
In fact, a lot of old-timers feared that the excitement and euphoria was so much that it would cause the Walias to become disillusioned and complacent, and thereby underestimate the skill of their rival teams.
At one time, officials at the Ethiopian Football Federation were focused on coaxing the squad members to fully dedicate themselves and concentrate on winning. The team was wary of the pressure, or simply in disbelief about the promised monetary rewards they would recieve, and wanted to make sure that the promised amount could be realised in cash before it was too late.
It was even rumoured that the team refused to train unless their demands were met, which they were in no time at all, and ceremoniously at that. The officials seemed to be carried away by their own dreams and even went as far as promising up to 64 million Br should the team make it to the final and lift the coveted trophy. Courtesy of the team, the Federation was saved from embarrassment, by cutting themselves down to size.
Their anticipation was boundless. The contingent included nearly 40 sports journalists, who were fully compensated for their travel and lodgings. Some cynics prefer to say they were "bribed", as the act seemed like one used to persuade the journalists to be less critical about the Federation. However, it is important to note that the Walias did not require that many reporters for the short journey and stay inSouth Africa.
In fact, there were some allegations that most of the sports newsmen stayed in hotels located in costly centres where press releases were issued. These allegations are certainly unacceptable if found true, and details of what the reporters had been doing shall be revealed in due time.
In the middle of all of these allegations, both the federation officials and the local internet-crazed journalists will have learned useful lessons about the vital role and power of the media, in its impact on all football stakeholders anywhere in the world. We hope that the sports officials will not only keep their doors open for reporters henceforth, but that journalists may also have learnt how to live up to the ethics of their profession. They are expected to tell us the facts, without becoming involved in the politics.
When we turn to the subject of discussing the actual performance in the three games, there are certain minor faults that we can raise.
In the first match, held against the Chipolopolos of Zambia, the Walias performed satisfactorily, despite being one-man down. All those who watched the game were surprised to see a team that was able to prove that it was a football power to be reckoned with.
Indeed, one of the first incidents of the game saw striker Saladin Seid lob the ball over the advancing goalkeeper, only to see the ball bounce cruelly over the bar. That miss could have been the goal that brought a name to the Ethiopian team, not to speak of the penalty saved later in the half. At any rate, Adane Girma's shot was not only an equaliser, but a record breaker after 31 years.
The second game, withBurkina Faso, was a different story. According to some fans, this one was where the Ethiopian team fell into complacency and failed to place the right amount of regard and respect to their rival team. Indeed, little was expected fromBurkina Faso, relative to the Nigerian and the Zambian teams. Adane and Asrat Megersa's injuries compounded their efforts, with the pressure on the exhausted players making matters worse.
The third match, against the Nigerian team, was the best performance of the Ethiopians, by any count. Their performance proved that the Walias had the potential to challenge the Nigerian team, which had high profile professionals, playing in some of the best teams in the English Premier League.
The same silly mistake of diving into a tackle on a striker was an offense that the Walias had to pay for dearly. The frustration and misconduct of the goalkeeper was incomprehensible, to say the least. He was red carded, making Addis Hintsa vulnerable as substitute goal keeper. The two successive penalties issued during the final minutes of the game allowed the Super Eagles to emerge as winners.
The Walias, despite their physiology, have demonstrated that they have the potential to be a force to be reckoned with in the not too distant future.
As far as the coach is concerned, he should be credited for doing the best that he could, in order to guide and motivate this team this far. Yet, he can, too, be criticised for his selection of players, which was based on equity rather than ability.