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Can Foreign Players Help Develop Ethiopian Football?

While commonplace in European football leagues, the recruitment of foreign-born players in Ethiopian football is a fairly recent trend. Some argue that these players will be good for the development of the sport, as they tend to bring new techniques, exposing players to the realities of competing with players from different countries. Others, however, argue that these players don’t bring much to local clubs and use up crucial resources, ultimately hindering the sport’s development. EBR adjunct staff writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke to football insiders to learn more about the debate.

Fifteen years ago, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) football team, which recently changed its name to Ethio Electric, won the Ethiopian Premier League trophy. Their victory made them the first to clinch the title from the St. George Football Club. When they won, EEPCo seemed poised to become the new football powerhouse.
When they secured their victory, they did not simply win a title; they did so in style. That team had conquered the League without investing much in ready-made stars. In its glory years, the team was well recognised for its homegrown players. They even had the nickname ‘Ajax Amsterdam of Ethiopia’, associating EEPCo’s youth development tradition with the giant Dutch football club.
That is all history now. The team’s reputation has faded away. They haven’t competed for the titled in years. They are not producing talents either; choosing instead to recruit players from abroad. Though spending on foreign players does not seem to be working for them, the team maintains the practice. Sometimes, they use three or four foreigners in their starting line-up.
The use of foreign-born players even in the lower leagues is becoming common. Though Ethiopian Football Federation failed to verify the number, stating that the registration of new players is incomplete, insiders say the total number of foreigners in the three league divisions is estimated to be over 40.
The prevalence of recruiting foreign players isn’t uncommon in football; in fact, it’s quite common among European leagues. According to the International Centre for Sports Studies’ Football Observatory, which compiles and analyses football data, ‘[t]he proportion of foreign players in professional football teams has increased steadily over the last thirty years. This progression has been particularly strong in Europe after the intertwining of legal and economic criteria.”
These changes resulted, in part, from the lifting of quotas that limited the recruitment of foreign players and the profit motives of football clubs that hoped to increase revenue through winning, advertisement during televised matches and endorsement deals.
As a result, the report says the recruitment of foreign players became more commonplace as teams attempted to increase their competitive advantage. “Up until 1985, the percentage of imported players in squads of teams in the five major European leagues never exceeded 10Pct. From that date onwards, the proportion of players has grown continuously. The biggest increase was observed between 1995/96…and 2000/01: from 18.6Pct to 35.6Pct. This growth has continued to this day….”
While this trend is relatively recent in Ethiopia, the St. George Football Club has been a pioneer in introducing foreigners to the League since the mid-1990s. Later, more players came and proved their ability to make a difference. Francis Omulaku, the Kenyan striker, is arguably the best foreign player ever to grace the Ethiopian Premier League. His strong partnership in a striking role with compatriot Eric Muranda, who continues his career at Sidama Buna a decade after his departure from the League, is a particularly memorable alliance.
Muranda’s injury time strike for St. George in the final days of the 2002/03 season helped snatch the title from Arba Minch Textile; the team came moments away from being first regional side to win the Premier League at the time. This season, the League champions brought three new mid-fielders from Uganda and Burkina Faso after their failed attempt to reach the quarter-final of the African Club Champions League.
While the most successful side in the country keeps recruiting foreigners in the hopes of being a continental competitor, other teams, even in the lower leagues, are also following this trend to improve their performance. Through the years, players from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leon, Uganda, Benin, Togo, Brazil and even Haiti have come to play for Ethiopian teams.
Belayneh Teshome, Sport Development Project Coordinator at Ethio Electric, understands the potential benefit of recruiting foreign players. He says they add a new dimension to the domestic league. They also encourage local players to elevate their performance to compete for playing time.
However, Belayneh says these benefits haven’t necessarily translated into meaningful talent development among local clubs. Those who follow the domestic leagues know about their struggle to maintain a crop of talented, committed players, as many of them only perform in the beginning and then fade-out.
Another challenge: Since most of the players come to Ethiopia as free agents, teams have little power to maintain the agreement when things go awry. A few years ago, the report about the Cameroonian player who fled home after pocketing ETB650,000 from EEPCo was the talking point on many FM radio sport shows. At times, the superior salary they earn upsets well-performing local footballers.
“We are talking about a League that rewards only around ETB150,000 to the champions after playing the whole season and travelling all over the country,” Belayneh argues. “What is the logic behind spending more money on foreign players who are presumably destined to fail?”
Though St. George seems like the only club to make the most of its foreign players, many think it hasn’t done much for their performance at the continental level. These critics point out the team’s long-lasting disappointments in continental football to question the added value by import players.
They argue that winning the domestic league consecutively might not be the answer. The collection of quality local players who are already on the team are good enough to win the domestic league without the help of foreign stars. However, this does not make people doubt the continental intent of St. George FC.
To understand how the other teams with no continental intent started signing foreigners, one should go back to the mid-2000s, when Kenneth Morton was assigned as the head coach for the struggling EEPCo team. Their aim was to stay safe in the League. However the Englishman started lobbying the team officials to help him sign cheaper, effective players from West Africa. Nigerian striker Thomson Okaija-Samuel arrived in Addis and his dazzling performance encouraged the officials to do more signings later.
The approach did not stop after Morton left the team. Local coaches who later followed used similar tactics. Sooner, this tradition became the norm for other teams as well.
Being attracted by the growing interest for foreign footballers, a few informal agents started to make frequent visits to Addis Ababa. There have been reports about some agents who bring players with a tourist visa and request Ethiopian teams to offer them trials. Gabriel Ahmed Shuaib, 26, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia mid-fielder who came to Ethiopia when he signed for Dedebit five years ago, confirms that this is how some of the poor-performing players were recruited.
Head coaches of Ethiopia’s national team repeatedly complained that they are struggling to find good local players from the top flight league since some of the positions were occupied by foreigners.
This has long been the problem in England. Commentators blame the foreigner dominance in the English Premier League for the national team’s failure in international competitions. Cesare Maldini, the former Italian U21 coach, openly complained in the late 1990s about a similar trend he witnessed: “At the youth level, our football is getting worse. We don’t have the players anymore. The increasing number of foreigners in our game means the opportunities for the youngsters are vanishing.”
The top teams seem interested in recruiting foreigners in the goalkeeper and strikers role, though some question the economic viability of this approach. “Clubs in other countries are now business entities. They can recruit players after doing a cost-benefit analysis. Our clubs are not businesses yet. Their budget comes in the name of fulfilling corporate social responsibility. This is another reason to develop indigenous players,” says Belayneh.
Dedebit brought Clement Ashitey, the 22-year-old Ghanaian goalkeeper, last September. The young man who had a short spell in South Africa says he “will surely perform very well and help my team to win the title.”
Gabriel sees a huge gap in Ethiopian football that he thinks can be filled by foreigners like him. “Almost all departments lack quality here. Finding technical mid-fielders might not be difficult. Ethiopians are very good on the ball. But there is a need for good goalkeepers and strikers,” he says. “With more foreigners, the League is now stronger than before. More players should come from abroad to wake up the local players and fight for their position.”
Belayneh opposes the Ghanaian’s judgment. “The football regulatory body should further restrict the regulation that allows teams to sign five foreign footballers.”
There is precedent for this: Last year, Rwandese Association Football Federation decided to limit the number of foreign players to three in each club. The Kenya Premier League also reduced its foreign players quota to five. EBR

5th Year • November 16 2016 – December 15 2016 • No. 45


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