The excitement that engulfed Ethiopia when the men’s national football team qualified for the biggest soccer tournament in Africa four years ago is now more like a tale from a bygone era. The fans, as electrified as ever in supporting the national team, remain desperately hopeless about the team not able to make any real progress in the beautiful game. The losing streak of the team continues in recent international matches as leaders in the sport aim to take the team to the Olympics in 2020. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw gages the sentiment of the fans and the ambition of the sports’ officials.
Watching the Waliyas get trashed 5-0 by Ghana a.k.a Black Stars mid June this year was very painful for Ethiopians. Although most of the country’s football fans had not been expecting anything out of that specific African Cup of Nations (2019 AFCoN) qualification game, in Babayara Stadium, many have not waited till the full time whistle to express their rage on social media. Others kept the radio phone lines busy to express their disappointment on the national team, criticizing everyone involved from the faulty goalkeeper to the country’s top football officials.
“Every defeat hurts, let alone conceding almost half a dozen goals in a single game,” said Zemichael Shimels, 34, a fan who looked very saddened by the Waliyas poor showing in Kumasi. “But the way we lost the game was embarrassing. That game killed my hope to see our national team on international stage anytime soon.”
Many share Zemichael’s concern. The national team that looked like reviving following its qualification to the 2013 AFCoN faded away very fast. The fans that waited for 31 years to see the Waliyas at the continent’s prestigious football tournament are not convinced that they have to wait for decades to celebrate another qualification.
Though the situation is not giving grounds for expectations, it is not all doom and gloom. According to the recent tripartite agreement between Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC), Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) and Ministry of Youth and Sports, the dream to see the Waliyas in global stage might come true in three years. “Football will be one of the eight sport disciplines we [plan to] participate in Tokiyo 2020 Olympic,” Ashebir Woldgiorgis (MD), President of EOC, was quoted in a press release, following the signing ceremony.
According to the agreement less than 20 years of age (Under-20) skilled players will be recruited from all over the country. These players will have extensive preparation period with the help of trainers and take part in football camping in local sport academies.
The new administration that came into the EOC office in April created extremely good impression in its four months. In Ashebir’s presidency, the institution which was rather silent most of the time now looked alive. “EOC is happy to come up with the scheme. But this is not something we opt to do by ourselves. It goes parallel with the other tasks; we work hand in hand with federations,” said Tamrat Bekele, Secretary General of EOC.
The country’s football administrative body itself was astonished by EOC’s plan. “We thank them for inviting us to this strange, but very important discussion on shared aims,” said Juneidi Basha, President of EFF, after their consent to work with the EOC and the Ministry.
Though the new move to create an Olympic football team seems a thrilling one, some highly doubt that Ethiopia would really be represented by its football team in Tokyo. “This is a very ambitious plan,” says Zemichael. “We may have a set of good players through this arrangement. What about the qualifications to go to Olympic Games?” he asks.
The qualification course might be the toughest hurdle that stands before realizing the three years plan. Ethiopian Olympic football team must be among the best three sides in Africa to book their ticket to the 2020 Olympic Games. To reach there, the team first needs to play in the qualifying rounds to win a place in the final tournament of eight age-restricted sides in CAF Under-23 final competition. The three teams that go all the way through the group stages and knockouts will finally qualify for the Olympic.
“I think this is even tougher than qualifying for AFCoN. We have waited three decades to win a place in 16 teams’ continental cup. How can three years be enough to be among the best three teams in Africa? I think shooting for the AFCoN games is more realistic,” Zemichael insists.
Abel Jebesa, another football fan, believes EFF has now even one more reason to hope for AFCoN qualification. Confederation of African Football (CAF) extended the number of participating teams in the final continental tournament from 16 to 24. Along with this, other changes to move the Nations Cup from January/February to June/July, and to rearrange club competitions period in the continent to be from August to May, have been approved by Ahmed Ahmed, president of CAF.
Though the expansion to 24 teams gives more chance of qualification to the football lightweight teams starting from 2019, many fear that the quality of the tournament will be compromised. The former St. George FC coach, Sredojevic Micho, struggles to see the positive aspects of this particular decision. “There is an economic interest for those who wanted to increase the number of countries in the tournament to 24. So it looks like economic interests have won as more countries mean more money generated.” The Daily Monitor, Uganda’s leading daily newspaper quoted the Serbian.
Amaju Pinnick, president of AFCoN organizing committee asserts Micho’s opinion. He mentions UEFA’s experience after reaching on the same decision in 2012 to expand the participating teams in European Championship. When it was a 16 team event, they made a profit of USD 1.5 billion. Last year, when they staged a 24 team event for the first time, they made USD 2.1 billion, the president told Kwese ESPN, a multi-sport news and live streaming site in Africa, after the executive committee decided on the issue.
Finding many countries with the facility to host 24 team events is also another headache to the new CAF administration. Ethiopia’s interest to host the biggest continental tournament has never been best kept secret. Leveraging its newly built stadiums in different parts of the country, hosting AFCoN in the near future might be the shortcut to qualify for the continental football tournament. EBR
5th Year • August 2017 • No. 53