Soccer is religion in some countries, a big money-spinner in others and the only hope for tens of thousands youngsters from the poorer regions of the world to achieve fame and fortune in rich countries. Soccer is also politics in some parts of the world and big business in others. In Africa, soccer is not only another way or opportunity out of poverty but also a patriotic exercise that puts so far unknown countries on the continent's political map, makes their peoples proud and stirs patriotic feelings and national pride.
Soccer is more than its brighter side. It has also a relatively more sinister dimension. It stirs public passions, creates violence known is the jargon of the trade as "soccer hooliganism" and sets nations at war against one another. We also had our fair share of public disturbances in this country in the recent past.
Soccer in Ethiopia is neither a religion, unlike some Latin American countries. It is not big business but it is big passion and a deep-rooted public entertainment if not public culture. Soccer is played in the slums, in the dusty neighbourhoods of Addis Ababa, in the parking lots of big cities, wherever there is an open area. It is often played with balls made of rugs or plastic. Many youngsters have dreams of making it big one day by playing in the national team or in European clubs where so many African players continue to shine and achieve fame and fortune.
Soccer for Ethiopian youths is also a gateway to a secure source of livelihood and a means of avoiding the much-dreaded joblessness, crime and drugs. Unfortunately, few make it to the top while tens of thousands turn from adolescent players to adult fans and see their dreams evaporate in the face of too much competition to for the top place and little facilities that could produce global stars like so many African countries.
Soccer has become part of the urban culture so to say. It is present everywhere you go; in the slums, in video shops where European soccer is shown to a growing number of young fans who watch European teams play every week. And when the African Cup of Nations arrive soccer turns into a festival if not into a sweet and temporary rage. It has become the culture or the fad for disadvantaged kids and even girls who try to forget their troubles by playing soccer in their neighbourhoods or in any available free space. The luckier ones will one day turn into professionals and play in local clubs or abroad with fat pay checks or transfer fees at their disposal.
It is however no big deal for a big country like Ethiopia to win only one cup in a tournament that is a little older than six decades since its official establishment by such greats of the game as Yidnekachew Tessema and his colleagues. However, it Ethiopia had turned from being one of the founders if not the frontrunners of the continental cup to one of the distant observers of the once in two year events. And yet soccer is so powerful here that it stirs passions that are out of proportion to the achievements and ranks of our national team. Although we are among the first countries that embraced soccer earlier, we have not yet produced a single superstar at a level comparable to that of Samuel Etto, Didier Drogba or Mohamed Salah.
Like any form of modern entertainment-cum-culture, soccer development requires the freedom to exercise one's talent, a conducive technical environment and proper management of the national league clubs. In the absence of these factors, Ethiopian soccer federation had long been ripped apart with bureaucracy, mismanagement, lack of vision and strong commitment to turn Ethiopia into a 'soccer nation' where the game is not only a passion but also a deeply rooted culture of entertainment as well as a big business . Until very recently, soccer players were some of the most underpaid, most disadvantaged and most abused professionals in the country. However, recent events give much hope for a turn to the better in the short and long term perspective.
What is amazing about Ethiopian soccer and its fans is that whatever the results of the fixture the national side is always supported by soccer-mad fans who quickly forget past losses and look forward for new wins. If there is something common to all the fans, and a reason for their collective passion, it is their patriotism and the deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment they whenever the national side wins a fixture as it was the case recently when our side made it for the next nations Cup despite its loss to Ivory Coast. Luck seemed to side the courageous Ethiopian fans who rightly perceive in this event a chance for the national team to shine again on the continental stage.
This is election time in Ethiopia and the atmosphere is seething with politics as it could be expected although cultural and sports events are also claiming public attention if not participation. Ethiopian politics was in doldrums for many years particularly after the 2005 electoral debacle that turned the table on the public expectations as votes were rigged and the incumbent, the then EPRDF, claimed victory in a contest that it had largely lost.
Some things in life return with a vengeance. Electoral politics is apparently returning to right past wrongs. If successfully conducted, the year 2021 might prove a triumph over the nightmares of 2005. The same can be said about soccer. Ethiopia's return to the African Cup of Nations might perhaps be seen as a revenge on past failures, particularly over the bitter disappointment that followed the nation's return to the African Cup of Nations in South Africa eight years ago. The public had to wait thirty one years before we could clinch a place in South Africa and then eight years to return with a vengeance to Cameroon. In this sense patience seems to pay dividends.
The recent qualification of the Ethiopian national soccer team to the 26th African Cup of Nations in Cameroun next year, has brought back long-dormant memories of public celebrations, rarely seen in the past in a country that is famous for its long-distance athletic brilliance on the world stage and less so in continental soccer.
Eight years back, Ethiopia rejoined the Cup of Nations in South Africa and that was a unforgettable moment when the entire country was seized with a kind of emotional outbursts and expressions of genuine patriotic feelings. Ethiopia which is one of the founders of the African Cup of Nations along with Sudan and Egypt was unable to play at the highest continental level for the previous thirty one years and that was considered a humiliation by the soccer mad public. And when the national team made its first appearance that was the moment of truth.
Soccer has become a national culture in many countries, including in Ethiopia where it is played by tens of thousands of people of all ages, although youngsters occupy the front seat for obvious reasons. Addis Ababa may be the hub of Ethiopian soccer but other regions are slowly building their own niches. Twenty years ago, there was no modern stadium worthy of the name in the entire country. Nowadays, modern and state of the art stadiums are built throughout the country. There is even a kind of competition to build the best stadium. As music shows are played with instruments and staged in big halls, soccer in Ethiopia has started to assume the features of a big cultural display that takes place in modern stadiums with state of the art facilities.
This is quite a progress. The next step in its long journey, soccer in Ethiopia will have to produce the best and the brightest among the thousands of young people who play the game every day of the week; in the sun or under the rain. A new generation of players inevitably emerge from among the soccer addicts who dream, sleep and eat soccer every day of their lives. Such a passion is vital for shaping the new generation of players who will make Ethiopia great again on the world stage while at the same time achieving fame and fortune for themselves. Love for their country will then be the biggest driving force for their success, a force that is behind the recent victory of the national side under the presently strenuous conditions.