Can Footballers Association Bring Change?

Abiy WendifrawJanuary 1, 20205979

Football is the most loved sport in Ethiopia, even though the country is more known in athletics globally. But such an affection usually ends with saddening moments as the national team has almost never been successful, except during some very few moments. Beyond that, with the absence of footballers’ association, there was no body to speak on behalf of the players. But five months ago, for the first time in history, footballers convened and established an association, which is expected to produce, in the future, skilled and well trained footballers, besides representing its founders. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw reports.

Ethiopian athletes never talk. Although they easily win, athletes do not know how to protect their rights and cope with administrative problems. Though it has never been a talking point compared to athletics, Ethiopian footballers have long suffered in the domestic leagues owing to their introversive characteristics. This is why they recently formed a players’ association aiming to battle for footballers’ rights.

“Footballers are victims of various administrative problems in clubs and sport governing bodies. We cannot continue to let this happen to football professionals,” says Yohannes Sahle, president of the five months old Ethiopian Professional Footballers’ Association (EPFA).

This move, however, is not sitting well with some club administrators and football officials. “They know we are going to raise some basic and serious issues regarding players’ rights. Issues like salary, contractual problems, medical treatment, insurance, and issues related with incentives will come up,” explains Yohannes. “Footballers get career ending injuries while serving their teams. No one cares. It is not just about a footballer leaving the field on stretcher. It is about the family behind him that loses their basic income. Many suffer in silence because they do not know how to deal with it. You do not challenge these perennial issues alone.”

Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) sees the new association and its purpose in a positive way. “Not just the footballers, but we as a federation would be better off. The federation will have representatives to discuss with before making major administrative decisions which affect football professionals,” says Bahiru Tilahun, public relation director at the federation. “We already showed the commitment to the association by providing them with workspace for office use.”

It did not take long before EPFA faced a matter demanding its action. Three days after the association was legally established, the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) announced that clubs have agreed on a salary cap for Premier League players. Almost all footballers in the league were in absolute shock when the decision to limit gross monthly salaries to ETB50,000 was passed.

“Why salary cap? We should leave the clubs and players to negotiate and take the market price,” argues the President. “My monthly salary was ETB150, back in the day. Then it increased to ETB400, then 1,000, then 10,000 and so on. Everyone started talking about how crazy salaries had become. Well, we cannot compare the salary paid three decades back to todays. The time value of money is there. Now you buy an egg for six or seven Birr. I used to pay 10 cents back then. And all the money never goes to the player’s pocket. The club management members and committees have their share. These were the agents who deliberately drove up the salary. This is the point: players never pushed the salary up in the first place.”

Thus far, the salary cap hasn’t fully materialized. Reports indicate that clubs are now paying hefty salaries more and more under the counter. “There is no club that complies with the so called agreement,” claims Yohannes who also coaches Wolwalo Football Club in the Premier League.

Yohannes believes the decision was illegal. “By introducing the non-practical salary cap, Ethiopian football is now more susceptible to corruption. The government should closely scrutinize this new trend. The clubs submit the salary agreement paper—executed according to the cap—to the Federation but pay additional monies in the name of allowances, benefits, bonuses and incentives. Because of the quasi-fake payment arrangement, government is losing the income tax previously collected from these players.”

Though EPFA has a lot of work left to expand its network in the local football circle, its management team is already ringing the doorbell of similar international associations. According to Yohannes, International Players’ Association is considering their request for membership. EPFA also claims that the English Football Association (The FA) has agreed to send delegates in January for potential assistance in trainings and to empower Ethiopian football professionals. “Because they did not have a strong union representing them, footballers often get overlooked by the authorities. Now at least they have a voice. I remember the association releasing a letter rejecting the salary cap decision,” says Girmachew Kebede, the VOA sport stringer in Addis.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) formed in 1907 in England is known to be ‘the world’s longest established professional sportspersons’ union’. The union works “to protect, improve and negotiate the conditions, rights and status of all professional players by collective bargaining agreements,” reads the statement on its website.

Empowering footballers to help them think about life after football is another task EPFA wants to engage in. Providing trainings like financial literacy would prepare them for inevitable retirement, something Girmachew also appreciates. “Playing football is one of the professions with a short career span. In other countries, post-career depression is a common problem. We do not hear similar reports here. That does not mean we do not have such problems. Footballers need non-football trainings as well. Having a strong association would be a good answer for these topics.”

Some believe Yohannes, the former head coach of Ethiopian national team, who is well remembered for his confrontations with the media and the administration of EFF, is the right person to lead the association to greater heights. On the other hand, many suspect the president’s perceivable aggressiveness and his trend of defying those in authority might cause undesirable effects, making the association pay. Yohannes says he is labeled “the dangerous man” by some in Ethiopian football administration circles. But he does not believe that would damage their efforts in the association. “I am not dangerous but the issues we raise as an association could possibly be,” he asserts.

8th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2020 • No. 81

Abiy Wendifraw

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