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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Politicising Football in Ethiopia


Fitsum Getachew

Wed, 12 Jun 2019 15:19 GMT

A few days ago we heard the news that the Ethiopian Football Federation, EFF, has decided to suspend the premier league with only three matches to the end of this year’s tournament! For many the move was too little too late given the poisonous atmosphere that had of late been emerging around sporting venues. Observers argue that this move must have been adopted more than a year or so ago when there were blatant signs of politicising the games and generating violence. Add to that the free usage of hostile language in social media targeting clubs and fans on the basis of ethnic origin. This has made the beautiful game hostage to the current political fever in the country.   

It is true that just as in many other areas of life, football as well could not be totally insulated from the socio-political landscape of any country. This has happened in Ethiopia as well. Political dynamics is permeating the sport. We see controversies that have nothing to do with the matches played in their own merit but on speculations of which referee is on whose side in the political arena or supporter of a particular party. Feelings which were once controlled or suppressed began to come to the fore and these in turn found reciprocity from the other end.  

There have been reports of national level competitions affected by the current changes and some officials have taken advantage of the changes in order to control tournaments. Winning has been associated with certain groups or parties and this has damaged the sentiments of fans. They were disappointed to see that football was made to succumb to political pressure and this has been a continuous trend during the past few years.    

Earlier we had experienced episodes of politically motivated manifestations carried out during football matches taking advantage of the relatively free atmosphere in football stadiums. People used to shout whatever slogan they thought expressed their hardened feelings against the government. Calls for the release of political detainees were heard aloud at the Great Ethiopian Run but were never broadcast. “Free so and so!”, they would shout collectively. Those were the days when there was little to no chance or venue to air suppressed grievances. But the current crisis that eventually resulted in deaths and destruction has escalated a national security threat. This was unthinkable some years ago!  

This is something that Ethiopians are all worried about and urge the concerned authorities to sit down and address it before things get nastier. Any cycle of violence would be overwhelming. When football fields become charged with political and nationality issues and do not have anything to do with the agenda of the technicalities or tactics of the game, this is reason to stop and reflect on the direction it has assumed. The train has derailed! Without realising it, we would slowly be moving in to a fratricidal war! This sounds exaggerated but social media has been disseminating it and even high level leaders of the clubs express these fears.  

In a collective sport that can easily provoke mob behaviour, with the supercharged nature of the youths in attendance, adding the fuel of political motives or worse still ethnic bias and egocentrism would drift us to a colossal abyss. Who can control unleashed emotions of tens of thousands of youths in the city? The roads would turn into a battleground. That is why the arguments of many observers are not exaggerated. Their judgment that the concerned authorities notably the EFF has done too little too late could be taken at face value.  

Why is all this happening? This is a question that has to be considered deeply and cautiously because there is more than one reason for the downfall of Ethiopian football.  

In brief, it is the culmination of a lot of errors piled up and rolling through the years including the lack of ethical and professional leadership. The scant attention the government has afforded to this potentially crucial communication vehicle and a national issue that could result as pivotal in nation building, if channeled appropriately, is another failure of the authorities.  

Football can be a strong instrument for building up national cohesion and we all remember how people rejoiced together and kissed one another on occasions of the national team’s successes. Success has brought up our inclination to be considerate to one another and our national pride has been enhanced. One could see floods of jubilant supporters of the national team holding national banners and flags and embracing one another. These are unforgettable moments in the history of any nation and a sense of purpose and unity permeates society. Ethiopian athletes have created such harmony regularly and people had hilarious moments to share.  

Leaders often take quick political advantage with such successes capitalising by conveying key policy messages. Often, youths are encouraged to work hard, to train hard to be successful in life just as in sports. Unity is underscored because football is a team effort and only collectively could a club win or lose.  

Victory being panacea for several national ills, positive nationalism feeds on victories. It motivates people to look for a brighter future relying on collective efforts. That is why undermining the power of football would not pay and would rather alienate youths which in Ethiopia constitute more than two thirds of a-hundred-million-strong population. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.