Sports or sportive events are very popular among populations and in our own country; I don’t think there is any sport more popular than football. Football is in a way part of our daily lives beginning from the early days of our childhood. I remember there was hardly anyone who did not play football in their respective neighborhoods. When I was at TMS I remember we were all busy playing football forming our own teams during the various breaks or lunch intervals. It was often very hot at those hours, but who cares; our focus was not the weather but the fact that we had the occasion to run after a ball, the competition and the rivalry etc. Being kids is so enjoying and full of excitement.
As kids we may not have had nice balls and sweaters or shoes as today’s children. So we had to make our own balls using various stuff such as worn out socks and the like. Those who had shoes were the more fortunate ones, because not everyone could afford it. What was important was the running, fighting, struggling to have and conserve the ball and above all scoring goals and winning matches because we even used to bet some coins which the winning team was awarded. We would buy some biscuits and eat together all. We would never get tired and we played until very late in the afternoon when the sun has already set and darkness looms, while our parents continued to yell at us to be back home. This is pretty much part of every Ethiopian youth to this day.
In those days, there were so many playgrounds unlike today when kids have to play on the asphalted bye roads or cobble stoned internal alleys! Back then, there were vast empty fields and playgrounds and we could run around and play football until we get exhausted all.
In our country, the national football is also very important because we had a certain Yidnekachew Tessema, a massive name in African football. He was among the founders of Ethiopian football and for years the maximum authority of football, definitely in Ethiopia. He presided over CAF (the African Football Confederation) for years and was the undisputed number one authority of football in Africa as well. When the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) was founded Yidnekachew Tessema was a key figure and our country was one of those which took part in the maiden competition in 1958.
Given that most of the African continent was under colonial rule, the first participation of AFCON was scant. Among the participants were Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa. But since South Africa had problems of racism in connection with the apartheid segregation policies, it was banned from taking part thanks also to the firm position Ethiopia had adopted with the insistence of Yidnekachew Tessema who advocated that sport could be exercised only on the basis of equality and justice and not by discriminating amongst sports’ men and women.
AFCON was prepared every two years, since 1958 and it has now reached its 33rd edition. This year Cameroon is hosting it beginning January 9, 2022 after a delay of six months due to Covid-19 issues. There is ample evidence to show that Ethiopians love football and there is a lot of excitement in this eleventh participation of the national team at the ‘AFCON 2021’. Ethiopians follow assiduously international football particularly the European leagues and many Ethiopians are ardent fans of the various teams such as Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona and others. The current explosion of digital television has probably facilitated this phenomenon because there is this opportunity to follow the matches in real time and people are very much excited about them. Today even the Ethiopian premier league is viewed live on DSTV, thanks to a sponsorship agreement. This means a lot to Ethiopian fans. In the distant past, it was only highlights that we managed to see days after the matches thanks to sponsors such as fuel distributors Mobil and Agip etc.
It should be noted here, that Ethiopians also do love athletics as well, because there have been renowned athletes who brought us medals winning at the various international competitions including the Olympics and the World Championships. But still paradoxically football appears to be more popular among Ethiopians regardless of the disappointments in competitions! Many people wonder how so much love for football could persist despite our mediocre results. Football still remains in pole position when it comes to emotions among fans. Whenever there is a major match at Addis Ababa Stadium fans begin to line up for tickets, even on the eve of the match. Whenever there are important matches aired on TV, the streets of our urban areas are deserted as people get glued to their TV sets to watch.
The most popular talk shows or programs on the various electronic media are those that talk about football even more than other sports. In fact, we have had more frustrations than satisfactions with our football clubs at any level despite our long history with football and some of our clubs such as St George Football Club were founded more than eighty years ago! However Ethiopians’ attachment to football has surprised even other so called ‘footballing nations’. So many says, it would be worth it to invest and capitalize on football because it appeals to so many.
The Ethiopian national football team has taken part in eleven African cup tournaments until now. More specifically, in forty years it has taken part only twice in this competition. This by itself tells us something about the level of our football which was once glorious and famous. Given the status of Ethiopian football from the very beginning of African football, taking part in such competition once in every three must be disappointing. What is more, Ethiopia has managed to lift the trophy only once and this happened when it was the host of the competition in 1962!
I remember that competition vividly as I was fortunate enough to be one of the fans who attended the final match with Egypt at the then Haile Selassie I Stadium. I was only a small kid with my father vowing to take me to the stadium, if we had qualified for the final. And I remember how worried my father was when Ethiopia was playing the semifinal with Sudan, I think it was, and how he followed the match over the radio transmission at home glued to his transistor.
The day we were to play the final against Egypt was a huge occasion in our sport calendar. It was unprecedented and the emotions were very high among all citizens also because our rival was Egypt who for various reasons made the occasion special. It was the power house of African football (having already won the competition once) and it was also a rival with us for the famous issue of the Nile waters. My father prepared for the final match very meticulously driving his car to Addis Ababa from Debre Zeit where we used to live then, and he was accompanied by another electric fan friend of his, and together they lifted me now and then to show me certain things I could not reach to see with my limited height.
The stadium was full to capacity and there were tens of thousands of people outside the stadium waiting to celebrate. It was a sensational day in our sports history. There was massive security around the stadium also because the emperor was due to attend the event. I have clear memories of the several mounted police with the huge horses supervising the entrances, and the crowd had to line up in perfect order.
I, my father and his friend were among the congested spectators and fans at what was called ‘Katanga Stand’. The atmosphere was electric and I remember my father’s friend praying with full of emotions. He invoked the name of St Gabriel given it was the day of St Gabriel according to Ethiopian Orthodox calendar. Whenever the Ethiopian team scored a goal they would throw me up their arms in jubilation and it was a miracle that I was not even hurt.
In any case, in the end the Walyas beat the Pharaohs 4-2 after intense extra time and Mengistu Worku and Luciano Vassalo became not only stars of the competition but also national heroes when they received the cup from the hands of the revered Emperor Haile Selassie. It was jubilation throughout the country and you could see how uniting football is.
When the Ethiopian national football team managed to win the first CECAFA cup here in our home ground beating its Zimbabwean counterpart after extra time and penalties there were similar emotions, despite the modesty of the competition, it being only regional. But the then leader Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam was present in the stadium to share the joy and excitement of the event. Of course success in any activity helps politically and the image of the country as well because the government gains from it. And we have often seen politicians take full advantage of it. But at the end what it tells us is that sports in general and football in particular is a huge factor for national unity and a force that needs to be better harnessed and administered.
When the national team returned from Rwanda some years back with the CECAFA trophy, it went straight to the National Palace to meet the then premier Meles Zenawi who was not reported as a big football fan! But he knew the impact it could have on the people.
At a time like today when we are passing through several national challenges, especially with pressure we have to endure from abroad, our national unity could better be galvanized with these sportive events such as active participation in football tournaments and hopefully some good results. In this sense AFCON 2021 could reflect a good image of our nation to the outside world while simultaneously enhancing our spirit of nationalism and unity.
Ethiopians are prone to rallying very easily behind their national flag as we saw at the countless rallies held by citizens all over the world. A participation in a huge sporting event presents the occasion to fly the famous green, yellow and red!
Everyone remembers how thousands of people lined up to welcome our heroic athletes whenever they returned from the various international competitions where they shined. We also remember the kind of emotions and unity we enjoyed together, when the national team qualified for AFCON and when the youths team made it to take part in the Juniors Football World Cup in Argentina some years ago! We remember the emotions felt when our flag was hoisted high up in the air and our national hymn is sung at the international arena and the various athletes such as Derartu and Haile in tears. This is the effect of sports and that of national feeling, a sense of belonging to one nation, one people and one country!
Hence, there are no doubts that football is a unifying factor and as a nation with seventy percent of the population being youths below thirty, we can and should only think of better exploiting such factor to benefit our national unity and mobilize people with a sense of purpose to hammer out our vitriolic emotions that have been deliberately disseminated by certain unscrupulous political parties and personalities and direct these feelings to more cohesion and understanding and more commitment towards peace and development endeavors. If we manage to administer our sportive establishments and become more fortunate with the results, we could have a huge potential for national unity and a solid sense of purpose and our development trajectory could proceed unhindered.
BY FITSUM GETACHEW
THE THURSDAY 20 JANUARY 2022