Football in Ethiopia is extremely popular. Millions are glued to their TV screens whenever there are football matches, particularly the national side. They congest stadiums in droves and are not hampered by prohibitive weather, queuing for hours to secure an entrance ticket. Their passion has been observed and even admired by foreigners.
The English premier league is among the favourites to these fans and one can observe young people sporting the jerseys of famous English clubs: Arsenal, Man United and Liverpool… Taxis are adorned with colorful pictures of football heroes: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr, the list is endless.
Unfortunately, the passion of Ethiopians for football is not commensurate with the performance of the teams. The audience’s tastes are refined and demanding but the standard of national football leaves a lot to be desired which has become discouraging if not disheartening. The league is ‘semi-professional’ but the expenses are too high to sustain it.
And yet at club formation level, Ethiopia is among the pioneers in Africa, St George Football Club, as an example is 83 years old!
Similarly, the Ethiopian Football Federation is among the founders of the African Football Confederation, CAF, along with Egypt and Sudan. And Ethiopian national Yidnekachew Tessema is considered by many as ‘the Father of African football!’ Ethiopian sport owes him a lot. Many may not be aware about the astute polyglot diplomat Yidnekachew, but he was a real giant in African football, considered a reformer while leading the Confederation, first as vice president (1964-72) and then as president (1972-87).
In early days, Ethiopia did manage to win one African Cup of Nations under Yidnekachew in 1962. As a personal witness of that historic event, I still remember the electric atmosphere, the huge crowd, the emotional outburst at the end of the match and the unbelievable victory against mighty Egypt. When the fourth goal was scored in extra time and irreversibly sanctioned the victory of Ethiopia over Egypt 4-2, my father and his friend threw me up in the sky in jubilation!
Sadly, Ethiopia has not had that level of glory since then. Those days have fallen into oblivion. No new successes to refresh them. This is a source of frustration among fans. People need and expect a lot from their national team; but conditions are frustrating.
And yet the paradox is that the appetite for football among Ethiopians is insatiable and has even increased. People never despair about their national side, expecting miracles. Many wonder why people are so passionate about football which is practically ‘non-existent’, and yet the salaries for players in local leagues have skyrocketed which has resulted in an increased attraction of foreign players. Currently, more than forty foreign players are enrolled here. The Ethiopian Football Federation, EFF officials say that football in Ethiopia has made progress. However, critics rebut, alleging mediocrity rather than improvement with modest players imported at high fees.
Football facilities remain average; pitches are rough; stadiums are of poor standard despite the approaching completion of several huge stadiums. Ethiopia lost the opportunity to host the 2010 CHAN Competition due to the above deficiencies.
Why has Ethiopian football lagged contrary to African trends? Explanations may vary but basically the entire system barely functions. And yet most citizens are young people in a population of more than 100 million, with an overwhelming passion but no skills. The recent interest of German giants Bayern to establish an academy here could be a turning point. There are also some modest upcoming projects for younger children. But the overall picture remains stark because political interference, regionalism and rivalry are all a threat to the sport.
Some say it may be the effect of ‘transition’ that the country is undergoing. Rising regional sentiments are becoming an issue and even a security concern to football. Many say it is beyond the capacity of EFF to run the leagues and there is a real urgency for change. The format may need an overhaul. The current operations and logistics are a nightmare. The clubs have to criss-cross the country for matches every week! Beyond the scheduling of fixtures the costs are enormous .
Controversies have been strife and followed by mob violence and it seems that it has reached crisis level with accusation against the EFF considered clumsy and inept. Government intervention may be key even at the risk of penalties from FIFA. Otherwise further alienation of fans could decree the death of football in the country!
In a recent intervention by the premier in parliament, this was expressly mentioned and there are severe risks that the government may cut funds allocated to ‘sports’ in general and local governments might be instructed to do the same. The premier concluded that clubs were not self-sufficient enough and that they should at least not add to the burden of security for the government. He underlined politics must be dismissed from football fields and the ball must be the focus of football players and fans. This is a clarion call from a person who can decide the fate of football in the country. Will he be heard? The EFF and all those who have a share in the pie should heed the premier’s warning. Tax payers’ money cannot be squandered without results!
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.