Big Score: When a Growing Number of Ethiopian Footballers go International

In the early sixties, some European football clubs showed particular interest in signing the late, legendary Ethiopian footballer Mengistu Worku.  This came about after watching his performance and reading very positive reviews in North African newspapers.  The Italian team Napoli F.C. in particular went as far as contacting the player to try to commence contractual negotiations.  In line with the custom of the times, especially for children of patriots, to seek the Emperor’s permission in going abroad, Mengistu sought such permission to proceed with the process of negotiating a contract and ultimately, relocating to Napoli.   With memories of fascist aggression still fresh however, the idea of an Ethiopian player being ‘sold’, especially to an Italian team, was too hard for the Emperor to swallow.  The ‘football doctor’ was subsequently commanded by His Majesty to play in Ethiopia, and with that, the opportunity for the first Ethiopian football star to play for a major European football club was squandered.  The country had to wait for over forty years before a series of international transfers of its football stars was effected.

In the past three decades, abandoning the national team while on international football duty, and seeking asylum during flight transits in Rome, Italy, or elsewhere, was more common than  pursuing an international career in football.  Apart from limited trials in the 90’s by some football players such as Bayu Mulu, Anteneh Alamirew, Ashenafi Sisay and Yordanos Abay,

Selahadin Seid

there were no significant developments in the international transfer area.  An era finally arrived where many Ethiopian football players and coaches joined the Yemeni Football League, where some still are at present.  In the last couple of years however, some Ethiopian football players have been able to break out of the confines of the relatively weak Yemeni Football League and sign for South African, Egyptian and some European clubs.  The stars included Fikru Teffera and Selahadin Said.  Following the growing success of the Ethiopian national football team, as well as its clubs in continental football competitions, the transfer process gained momentum in 2013.

During the 2013 summer transfer window, more than six Ethiopian football superstars were able to realize their dreams of becoming professional players on the international stage.  They succeeded in signing for football clubs in South Africa, Israel, Libya and Sudan. This state of affairs came about due to exposure gained while playing for their national team in the African Cup of Nations, which took place in South Africa in January 2013.  According to Markos Elias, a sports journalist with a weekly, mostly local football-related program on a local radio station in Addis Ababa, international exposure was also promoted through the players’ involvement in club tournaments at continental level. The sport journalist considers this as a good omen for the game of football in a country that appeared to slumber for some thirty years. Markos says “These players will acquire much-needed international experience and tactical discipline while playing for their new clubs.  This is expected to have a positive impact on the success of the national football team, and will reflect positively on the overall status of the country’s football, as the players will inspire others to follow suit and place Ethiopia within the radar of international player agents and brokers.” Tereffe Amberbir, general manager of St. George F.C. concurs, “This new development,” he says, “is a real eye opener for all football players in the country, and I am sure that it will strengthen the national team.”  Through free transfer, St. George’s play maker, Shimelis  Bekele, was transferred to the Libyan football club Al Ittihad Tripoli S.C. in August of the current year, as the player’s  contract period with his former club elapsed at the end of June 2013.

The story was different when Selahadin was transferred from St George football club to the Egyptian club Wadi Degla two years ago.  According to the General Manager, as the player had not completed his contract period with his former club, ‘Feresegnochu’ (the Horse Men)were able to obtain close to ETB two million from the Egyptian club.  On the other hand, Dedebit F.C. was paid USD 24,000 by the South African football club,

Getaneh Kebede

Wits University F.C. when its superb striker and last season’s Ethiopian Premier League’s ‘Player of the Year’ and top scorer, Getaneh Kebede, was transferred to the South African club.  This is due to FIFA’s ruling compelling clubs seeking to transfer players to pay five pct of the benefits that the player (if below the age of 24 years) receives, to the club that the player intends to leave.  Mebrat Hail, known affectionately by its fans as ‘Elpa’, was also able to obtain USD 50,000 from the transfer of its towering midfielder, Asrat Megerssa, to the Israeli football club Hapoel Nir Ramat.

The said players are able to obtain hefty sums from these transfers.  Even though there is no such thing as a ‘transfer fee’ (according to FIFA’s Transfer Matching System/TMS), if the player is not bound by a contract,  football insiders estimate that Ethiopian players, on average, are paid around USD 100,000 for a single year in transfer fees, in addition to monthly salaries ranging from USD 2,500-USD 10,000.  The players sign for a period of between one and four years, garnering predetermined bonuses for every season.  However, a comparison of  the benefits Ethiopian football players received from these transfers with the financial gains obtained by other African players may not give a clear picture.  Football journalist Markos explains, “Because the transfer deals depend on the performance of the player and the status and financial strength of the clubs, it is hard to position Ethiopian football players on the African players’ transfer scene.” The transfer fee of an African player in continental clubs ranges, for instance, from that of the Nigerian striker, Stephen Worgu, transferred from his home club Enyimba F.C. to the Sudanese Al-Merrikh F.C. in 2008 for a whapping USD 2.5 million, in addition to an annual salary of USD one million, to that of low end players common in East African leagues.

A seemingly paradoxical issue that springs to mind when considering the presence of African, international football players in the Ethiopian Premier League, while Ethiopian stars are moving outside is: why Ethiopian football clubs do not provide the benefits African international football players obtain while playing in the Premier League, to their own players, so as to retain their services. About 32 African international players joined the League in the last three years alone. Terrefe explains that what the clubs pay to international players is small, compared with what Ethiopian players were expecting to make in their new assignments.  He also wanted to encourage local football players to play outside the country as it would be good for the country’s footballing image.  He stressed, on the other hand, that team spirit would be eroded if domestic players within a team were paid different amounts of money.

<caption >Ethiopian football stars who made their international debut Source: Local media and confidants of the players * not confirmed by the parties involved.

Names of players
Clubs transferred from – to
No. of years
transferred for
Transfer fee
in USD ‘000*
Monthly salary in USD*
Payment for the previous club in USD*
Shimelis Bekele St. George – Al Ittihad Tripoli SC., Libya
3
670
8,000
Free Transfer
Getaneh kebede Dedebit FC. – Wits University FC. South Africa
4
600
6,000
24,000
Asrat Megersa Mebrat Hail – Hapoel Nir Ramat, Israel
1
100
8,000
50,000
Mohammed Nasir Medhin – Al Ahly Shandy, Sudan
1
100
2,500
26,000
Addis Hintsa Dedebit FC – Al Ahly Shandy, Sudan
1
100
2,500
Free Transfer
Selahadin Seid St. George – Wadi Degla, Egypt
2 (now extended)
200
10,000
120,000

There are three ways a player can transfer from one club to another: expiry of the player’s contract period; through a buy-out clause in the contract; or loaning out the player. The Ethiopian Football Federation processes international transfers using FIFA’s TMS software, and through issuing an International Transfer Certificate (ITC), detailing financial and other aspects relevant to the player’s transfer process.  The Ethiopian Football Federation receives ETB 14,000 if contract and money transfer is involved.  Transfers are conducted twice a year and only in specified transfer windows.  The international transfer process must be followed to the letter, in order to negate the possibility of players facing problems while playing for their new clubs.  Zewdinesh Yirdaw, manager of the International Players Transfer Department of the Ethiopian Football Federation emphasizes that there are difficulties in understanding the international transfer process.  She points to the transfer of the national team midfielder Addis Hintsa to the Sudanese club Al Ahly Shandy, explaining that he will not be able to play for his new club in international matches as he does not possess an ITC.  He would simply be an amateur player without an international, binding contract.  Zewdnesh said that she would be implementing training activities for Ethiopian football clubs on ITC related issues.  However, the absence of certified player agents with in-depth knowledge on such issues will make the transference process of Ethiopian football players rather difficult.

Mikias Merhatsidk

EBR staff writter

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