St. George FC, one of the most popular teams in the Ethiopian Premier League, has enjoyed many successes and endured its share of tribulations during its 80 years of existence. But one thing that still eludes the club is success on a continental level. EBR’s adjunct staff writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with team administrators to learn more about it’s storied past and its plans to bring itself to the next level of success.
When thousands of St. George FC fans travelled from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar in March 2016, they were wishing for something new. Knowing that their favourite club is celebrating its 80th anniversary and is the most successful club in Ethiopia, they were thinking about one element lacking from the club’s list of achievements: continental honour.
That’s the very thing the fans were travelling to see: a match between St. George and TP Mazembe, a club from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Although St. George, the most successful club in Ethiopian football, was playing at home, in front of its thousands of fans, the visitors were favoured to win.
In the 90-minute match, St. George did not only play well. They scored twice coming from behind and the stadium located in a town 522 km from the Capital erupted. A win would have given St. George FC the possibility to join the quarterfinal of the African Champions League for the first time in club’s history. Sadly, they conceded a goal. The Congolese levelled the score in the final minutes. The game ended 2-2.
When the referee blew the final thwhistle, all the St. George players and tens of thousands of fans in the stadium were disappointed. Zerihun Shengeta, the club’s assistant coach, ended up in tears. “I cried for the fans,” he said later, mentioning those staunch fans of the club who came to Bahir Dar by 26 buses and private cars to support their team. “We have these loyal fans patiently waiting and waiting for us to deliver something at the continental level. I was sad when we conceded the second goal. But they were still singing for us after the final whistle. They were always supporting us even when we struggle in the domestic league too. This is the reason I became so emotional.”
If there is anyone who can tell how it feels to be a player, a coach or a fan of this club, it is Zerihun, who has a long history with the team. He began his formal relationship with St. George through their youth team and played for the senior team for 13 years. He then joined the coaching staff after his retirement in 2005. The man, many fans call him ‘Our Ryan Giggs’, comparing his loyalty to the Manchester United legend, is still hoping to see a time in which his club, which he calls “my home”, will enjoy continental acclaim. Even after their 1-0 defeat in Lubumbashi, DRC, Zerihun and his players had belief.
In those first three weeks of March, Ethiopians had a busy continental football schedule. The men and women national teams faced their Algerian counterparts in home and away matches. The outcomes were not pleasing. The men’s national team’s shocking 7-1 defeat in Algiers destroyed their slender hope to qualify for the African Cup of Nations 2017. The Lucy, the women national team, failed to cancel out the 1-0 narrow defeat away and they drew 1-1 in Addis. While both of the national teams look fell short of their own standards, St. George were praised for their brave performance against the defending champions.
Although the 3-2 defeat by TP Mazembe seems narrow, some judge the club for its poor record in continental football in its 80-year existence. This does not make sense to Neway Beyene, General Secretary of the club’s board. “Yes we are 80 years old. But how old is Arsenal? 130? They never win the European Cup except the Cup Winners Cup. But does that make them any smaller? No. Arsenal is a giant club. Winning cups is a matter of situations. Let us take TP Mazembe. We are in a similar age category. They won the champions league five times. Can we question what they were doing in the other some 75 years? And St. George was not playing in continental championships all the 80 years,” he argues.
Besides the club’s effort to strengthen the team, its officials believe that the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) should also work with them to ascend to continental prominence. St. George has been lobbying the country’s football regulatory body to amend the rule that restricts the number of foreign players on the team. Although the previous regulation that limits the number of registered foreign players has been changed from a “maximum of three” to a “maximum of five”, club officials believe it still hinders their abilities in continental competitions.
“The Congolese team we faced in Bahir Dar was not Congolese,” says Ermias Ashine, the club’s Public Relations Officer. “Nine of the players in the starting line-up were foreigners. Around 14 of their players are not Congolese. We do not want to just pack foreigners in every department in our team. When we find spots that cannot be filled by domestic players, we may look outside for some quality.”
However, the administration understands St. George’s legacy should be grander when the club celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 20 years. Currently, they are working on their football academy project. It will be officially launched this month in Bishoftu, 45 km south east of the capital. The facility, which lays on 24,000 square metres of land, will host 100 youth players who are 13 years of age and older. These players are recruited from the club’s annual competition in commemoration of Yidnekachew Tessema, who played for St. George for a record 23 years and later founded of the Ethiopian Football Federation in 1944. “Financially we cannot compete with Al Ahly, Zamalek and other clubs. We know we have to produce talent,” says Ermias.
The Ethiopian club is now working with Asante Kotoko of Ghana, which is renowned for its football academy, to share experiences. They are also consulting with the European giant Ajax Amsterdam and the soccer school in Cairo, Egypt that works with Arsenal. “We are hoping that football experts from these institutions will come and provide successive short courses to our former players who can be engaged in the academy,” says Ermias.
The last time St. George came close to secure a continental cup was when they reached the Central and East African Clubs Championship final in 2010. Insiders acknowledge that Ethiopia’s team could have easily won the game had they utilised some clear-cut chances they wasted in front of the goal that night. “We were 0-0 until the 88th minute. [One of] our players had the ball just four metres away from the goal. His shot went high over the bar,” Neway remembers. The match went on for an additional 30 minutes. St George conceded two goals and APR FC of Rwanda clinched the Cup. “Taking that golden chance could have changed the whole history of our club. Sometimes that is how close you can be.”
To strengthen his point, the General Secretary cites the former Russian football clubs that are now struggling in Europe, despite their rich experiences. “Dynamo Kyiv, Spartak Moscow, CSKA Moscow and the likes are now leaving the UEFA Champions League in the first round. Are these clubs any smaller? No.”
Neway says he is not tearing his hair out because they could not make solidify their rank as one of the best eight teams in Africa. For him, winning is a plus. “Enjoy the trip” he says. “In 80 years we’ve enjoyed the trip!”
This trip is believed to have started in December 1935 in Addis Ababa when football enthusiast residents around Arada district in Addis Ababa founded St. George, two decades before the existence of the Ethiopian Football Federation. Being established during the period when Italians invaded Ethiopia, the club attracted many people who recognise the team as a symbol of Ethiopian identity.
At the time, St. George was the only Ethiopian team to play against foreigners. But the journey was not trouble-free. Those close to Ethiopian football witnessed the challenges the club faced during the Dergue regime, when authorities changed the name St. George to Addis Ababa Brewery, which lasted for 19 years. At times, financing the team was the bigger challenge. At one point, the club collected just ETB64 from its 15 fans in 1972 following severe financial problem.
Through all the ups and downs, the club has been producing big football talents and sports personalities in Ethiopia. From Yidnekachew Tesema, the man who is recognised for his massive influence in Ethiopian and African football to Adane Girma, who recently retired from international games, have been all St. George players. General Aman Mikael Andom, who later became Head of State, was also a former St. George player.
“This club is not only part of Ethiopian football history. It is part of the nation’s history,” says Zerihun. “Many clubs came and disappeared in different regimes. St. George still exists. When you go through the club history, you also understand the history this country went through. ”
The club’s structural set up is one of its strengths. Unlike many other clubs, St. George’s leadership consists of people who are emotionally invested or have a long history with the team. “We have a strong foundation to keep the club going. There are always people who work passionately for this club,” says Neway. A number of football clubs that were established by the Dergue regime, representing different sectors and governmental institutions, are gone. Even now most of the clubs in Ethiopia have unstable financial and institutional basis.
Leoul Tadesse, a freelance sport journalist, puts St. George in a secure position. ”St. George is the last club you would be afraid of shutting down,” he says. Neway agrees: “Considering our huge fan base, we are too big to fall.”
According to Neway, the perception of St. George as the highest spender is wrong. “Yes, we attract top players in the country. Are we paying the record transfer fee? No. Are we paying the highest salaries? No. Players know our club paves the way to their dream. Those who aspire to play for foreign clubs know we can give them the opportunity to display their qualities on the continental level. That is why they choose to wear our jersey. The best talents want to join [us].” EBR
4th Year • April 16 2016 – May 15 2016 • No. 38