Addis Ababa, home to over four million people, used to be a base for several football clubs. Its main stadium hosts many games, allowing sport fans to spend time watching local football. But in recent years, the number of Addis-based football clubs that play in the Ethiopian Premier League, dwindled to three from more than 10 five years ago. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw looks into the matter to understand the reason behind the decline, and its consequences.
Not so long ago, Addis Ababa was home to Ethiopia’s elite football clubs, with the best players, coaches and teams. Even two or three years ago, the city hosted home games, and hosted regional teams, which came to play in Addis almost every other week. In fact, nearly half of the teams in the Ethiopian Premiere League were Addis-based.
But in two years, the number of Addis clubs in the League dropped to three from seven. There were different reasons. The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) dissolved its men’s team after it was relegated from the League. Ethio Electric and Ethiopia Insurance Company struggled in the lower leagues to get back to the top division. Dedebit had already moved its base from Addis to Mekelle. If the struggling Defense F.C. is relegated, Addis will only have two teams, St. George and Ethiopian Coffee, competing in the Premier League.
This would affect both teams’ competitive advantages. They were the two most supported teams in town in the past, observers say, and were comfortable playing against other less supported Addis-based teams, both at home and away, all of which were played at the same Addis Ababa Stadium, packed with the same fans. Now the teams have to travel more to away matches where they struggle to win points, and are forced to deal with mounting travel and accommodation expenses.
“Football in Addis is dying in silence,” says Leoul Tadesse, a sports analyst at the Rigore radio show on Fana FM. “We used to see three or four games every week. Last season, we had even more games because all the club fixtures from the regional states of Amhara and Tigrai kicked off here.”
Having fewer games in Addis means the spectators in town will stay away from stadiums and not watch local football. Even journalists have to travel more to analyze the domestic league. Leoul admits that football analysis this season was very challenging for his show. “The title contenders like Mekele 70 Enderta, Fasil Kenema and Sidama Coffee, don’t often play in Addis, so you might need to take trips to see them, which is not practical on a weekly basis.”
The game in Addis was suffering long before league representation started to decline. The football fields where kids and youth play started to vanish due to the increasing use of sport fields for building construction. Because Addis is not producing enough players, the teams are packed with footballers from regional cities and other African countries.
“The talent pool is drying up before our very eyes. I am glad people are realizing it now,” says Leoul.
Even the fans and club officials seem to be feeling the strain. Some St. George and Ethiopian Coffee fans campaigned to support Defense F.C to stay in the league. The administrators of the two clubs are also lobbying for the league format, which they blame for majority of the problems in the country’s football, to change.
Gezahegn Wolde, the former office head of Ethiopian Coffee, who now serves in the same position at the Addis Ababa Football Club, insists that the country’s football administrative body should seriously reconsider the league format which he believes “is consuming huge resources and damaging football without any intervention.”
“We have to evaluate the format taking into consideration finance, security and fair play standards. Clubs competing in the Premier League spend around ETB 2.2 billion a year on football with no return. Do we have a standard of football that deserves this amount of money? Should we fund it using tax payer money? Can we continue like this? If we answer these questions, we could solve Addis Ababa’s problem.”
Though the Ethiopian Football Federation does not seem interested, there are people who advocate for changing the two decade old Premier League format which is played at a home and away. Some reject the idea, and accuse the Addis Ababa clubs, who they believe are setting this agenda because they are struggling to dominate the league like before. Some suspect the bigger teams might plot for a breakaway league if their outcry is ignored.
Bringing back the old format of the Ethiopian Championship, means regional clubs would compete in their territories first and a national playoff would be staged between the winners to identify a champion. The idea of eliminating the Premier League format seems hard to swallow for politicians who say that teams travelling and playing all over the country brings people together from different cultures and backgrounds. Giving up on the Premier League, they say, is like going against people’s solidarity.
Leoul agrees that the league format creates all sorts of problems. But changing it might not be the answer to the declining numbers of clubs in Addis Ababa. “The old format might bring back all the relegated and even disbanded teams to compete again. We might have more district based clubs. But we need to think about the competitive balance.”
“Having more teams in the league might give the emerging footballers in Addis more opportunities. But it does not change the fact that there are few playing fields in the city for young people,” Leoul argues.
Haileyesus Fisseha, President of Addis Ababa Football Federation, does not see the Premier League as a major threat. “Of course it challenges the clubs’ financial capability. I recently saw the half-season financial report of one premier league club. It spent ETB 21 million just on transportation and hotel expenses. This money could have been spent on football development projects. In Addis, we have different league categories where over 50 teams compete. But because players do not have pitches to play and train on, we are more concerned about the talent.”
Putting aside the growing security concerns at games, the damage to the financial and sporting aspects caused by the league format seems to have convinced many in the sport to reconsider how football is organized in Ethiopia. Although he cautiously suggests carrying out research before making a major decision, Haileyesus’s reaction to a potential change of the league’s format is positive. “It would be good news, not just for the Addis Ababa Football Federation, but for all regional federations”
8th Year • Jun.16 – July.15 2019 • No. 75