Back to the Future: Ethiopia’s Bid to Host the 2021 African Cup of Nations

January 21st 1962 was the greatest day in Ethiopian football history. Ethiopia was able to win its first and last African Cup of Nations (AFCON), after beating United Arab Republic (Egypt) 4-2 in additional time, in one of the most entertaining games ever played in African football history. Ethiopian football legends like Mengistu Worku and Italo Vassalo quenched the trophy thirst of the spectators packed at the then Haile Selassie Stadium.    

Addis Ababa stadium, fondly known as Kambolodjo by football spectators is the only major sporting arena in the country. Built during the imperial era, the stadium is an iconic structure in the city. Located at the heart of Addis, it is not just a sporting facility; it is a place of worship for football crazed urbanites. Football fans meet, have beers, and spend their spare time talking about their beloved clubs. Surrounded by ars and pubs, which overtook Tela bets of the earlier times, which are open starting early in the morning, the stadium is always colourful thanks to the loyal fans of clubs like St. George and Ethiopian Bunna.   

Ethiopia hosted African Cup of Nations three times in 1962, 1968 and 1976, only Egypt and Ghana who each hosted the tournament four times have hosted the tournament more times. In addition to Addis Ababa Stadium, Asmara Stadium and Dire Dawa Stadium were involved in hosting the sixth and tenth African Cup of Nation (AFCON) respectively.  Buoyed by its recent impressive economic performance, the country is once again gearing up to bid to be the host nation for the 33rd  edition of AFCON which will be held in 2021. However, there is a lot to be done to win the hearts of the executives of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), but chances are the country may win the bid, provided that the government is committed to the process that comes with such a responsibility.

The biannual AFCON tournament has been played since 1957, and is thereby older than the corresponding European championship. So far, only 18 countries have been able to host the tournament. Countries heavily invested in their sports facilities are the ones who tend to host the games. This is especially more noticeable in recent editions of AFCON. 

Sporting facilities with international standards are almost nonexistent in Ethiopia, except the newly inaugurated National Youth Sport Training Center. For a nation that worships sport, football in particular, Ethiopia lacks a major arena for its clubs or national team. Addis Ababa stadium, with its bare minimum amenities and limited capacity (it holds 15-18 thousand spectators) is host of where every international game played in the country. Besides its notoriously uncomfortable pitch, which every visiting African team complains about, many football fans return home because they can not get seats especially during international matches. The Ethiopian Premier League is played in fields whose grounds are not even levelled. These playing grounds of regional teams are without the minimum facilities or even a fence. Despite numerous promises to build international standard facilities since the Dergue era, nothing tangible has yet been materialized. Infrastructure developments of the last decade have taken significant time to address the sports sector. Recently though, some signs of change are being seen.

Even though it started late, construction of some sporting facilities are under way in the country. A number of relatively modern stadiums are being built in regional cities like Bahirdar, Woldiya, Mekelle, Neqemte and Hawassa. These stadiums, with seating capacities that range from 25 to 50 thousand are under construction with budgets of hundreds of millions of birr each. In addition to these, construction of a national stadium with a seating capacity of 60 thousand and planned cost of ETB1.8 billion is expected to start by the end of 2014.

Encouraged by these developments, massive infrastructure projects around the country and the generally positive performance of the economy, the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) has presented its proposal to host the 33rd edition of AFCON that will be held in 2021. The proposal, made at the recent General Sport Council session, which was chaired by the federal sport commissioner, was accepted by the council.  

“Even though we did not yet have the specific amount of the cost for hosting the tournament, the new administration of the football federation (only a couple of weeks old) is working on the details of what to do next,” says Yigzaw Bizuayehu, secretary general of EFF. “We will send an application to host the tournament, filling the request form we have received from CAF, using the window until January 14, 2014.”

There are eight years before the tournament is to be held, and a lot can be done in the meantime. “As part of the growth and transformation plan, we are building sporting facilities around the country. International standard facilities are being built in different regions. The national stadium in Addis Ababa will also be ready for the tournament.  Tender for the construction of the stadium will be issued by the end of this fiscal year,” Tibebu Gorfu process owner of sport facilities at the Federal Sport Commission told EBR. “CAF will give special attention to security, accommodation and infrastructure and I am sure they will be delivered.”

Yet some have doubts about the quality and standards of the new facilities being built. “The new stadiums are being constructed, setting the Addis Ababa stadium as a model. This will make them fall short off the required amenities like spacious media tribune, and this will be a challenge when the facilities host big events,” says Mensur Abdulkeni, a seasoned sport journalist. “Stadiums around the globe are now being constructed with star ratings like hotels and I do not think sport commission has set international criteria for standardization, besides seat capacities.” 

Apart from the national stadium in Addis Ababa,  other stadia are being built by the respective regional governments and city administrations. But in the sport facility development strategy of the nation, the private sector was also given a role to play. According to the directive implemented by the sport commission, private investments will be given priority for land and negotiate with respective administration for lease and will be granted duty free privileges for capital products and other equipment like gym facilities. However, it is important to note that the share of private investment in major sport facility is very minimal.

Officials at the federation hope the role played by the private sector will be more successful in facilitating the needed international standard hotels. In addition to the accommodation facilities, an efficient transportation system is required from the host country of AFCON. “As most of the essential infrastructure is being built as part of the development strategy of the country, we do not think major investment and construction will be necessary just for the tournament,” explains Yigzaw. 

The relationship between sports investments, tournament-focused in particular and economic benefits derived from this do not have a clear set of framework. The economic results of hosting a tournament are mixed around the world. For a country like Ethiopia, that is just starting from a low infrastructure base and that should build these facilities anyway, (even if it is not bidding to host a tournament) the results are generally expected to be positive. Yet there are some concerns. AFCON as a tournament does  not attract many tourists and is not profitable most of the time. 

‘‘The government is committed to this venture’’ says the secretary general of EFF. So everything will be facilitated, the federation hopes. Prime Minister Hialemariam Desalegn has told players of the national football team and athletics team, in his speech during a prize giving ceremony in the national palace, that his government is behind the national team and it will do anything possible for the success of the national team and growth of the sport. People in the EFF have taken this as a sign that the government is on board. Now the question is will CAF give Ethiopia the chance to be the host?

“It has been almost 40 years since we have hosted the tournament; as one of the founders of CAF, I think we will win the bid,” says Yigzaw. Mensure concurs, “if we are able to build the necessary facilities and infrastructure Ethiopia is an ideal place to host the AFCON. Besides, it has been a long time since an East African nation hosted the tournament and our country’s place in the continental political organization will give it an additional impetus.”

Since the death of Ethiopia’s football father, the late Yidnekachew Tessema, the country has been unable to create a football personality that it can deploy to lobby and work as a sports diplomat. This has cost the country dearly in the past.  “People in the bidding committee must be carefully selected and veterans like Fikru Kidane (a protégé of Yidnekachew, with life long experience in international football organizations) should be used as a bridge to send our message across,” says Mensur.  “We understand that strong football diplomacy and lobbying will be needed, but we have not yet chosen who should be included in the committee to do this and who to use in our endeavour,” says the secretary general.  

The football federation plans to host U-17 or U-20 (under the years of 17 or 20) African competitions first, and use it as a litmus test, before hosting AFCON. Furthermore, it plans to establish a local organizing committee with various sub-committees that will spearhead the preparation once the chance to host the game is given to the country. If Ethiopia is able to accomplish this task and host AFCON, it will  certainly be a milestone not only for the nation’s football, but also for the country as a whole.

2nd Year . November 2013 . No.9

Mikias Merhatsidk

EBR staff writter


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