The makings of a successful football team begin long before a match– it starts with the development of a talent pipeline. Yet, Ethiopia is lacking programmes committed to developing young footballers. However, that’s changing with the emergence of places like Sewnet Bishaw ena Betesebu Youth Football Training. EBR adjunct staff writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with football insiders to learn more about the work of the centre and how it is developing future talent.
‘Grassroots football development’ seems to be the most discussed topic regarding Ethiopian football whenever the national team losses a match. Opinions pour through FM radio sport shows and social media forums. Many believe the national team’s inconsistent results stem from lacklustre effort in developing younger players, hindering the development of a pipeline of talent that may eventually join the ranks of the national team.
The team that rose from the ashes to secure an African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualification in 2013 failed to keep the momentum. Fans fear they might not see their national team in the AFCON in the near future unless the country begins a long-awaited talent development programme.
But the task of nurturing and training kids requires a skill set that’s possessed by a rarefied group: elite athletes, experienced coaches, and retired footballers. It is only recently that high-profile football insiders showed interest in committing their knowledge and experiences to grassroots development work.
One man in particular – Sewnet Bishaw – has agreed to take on the challenge of mentoring young players. The former head coach of the national team, who led them to the continental stage, launched a private company nearly one year ago.
According to Sewnet, who worked in Ethiopian football for decades, the country’s football team has stagnated by solely developing adult players. The players in club football did not receive basic skills training and no one taught them how to strategically play the game, which means many of them play their own way, leading to significant problems when they join prominent teams.
“The same players come to represent their country without understanding basic football tactics and the responsibility in wearing the national team’s jersey,” he says. “At some point I asked myself who will take the initiative to fill the gap. I knew clubs would not do it. Finally, I decided to give it a try and I founded a small training firm.”
His centre, which is called Sewnet Bishaw ena Betesebu Youth Football Training, is now providing basic football skills training for 150 children and teenagers between the ages of 7 and 17. “We are trying to help them to the best of our abilities. We are providing them the training that is recommended for their respective age categories,” says Sewnet.
Though the priority is teaching trainees foundational skills, there are professional and personal development elements as well. Sewnet says the trainees are expected to behave and he does not tolerate those who conduct themselves in a disruptive manner. Coaches closely monitor their trainees, including their schooling.
So far, his efforts have been well received. Tsigemariam Worku, 30, is among the parents who come with their children on weekends to Abebe Bikila Stadium, where Sewnet teaches football skills. Watching her son, Natenael Solomon, 10, and her daughter, Yemariam Solomon, nine, being trained on the field with a renowned coach makes Tsigemariam elated. She brings Natenael and Yemariam from Summit, a residential area located 20 kilometres from the Stadium. “Personally, I love football,” she says. “That is why I admire what Sewnet, is doing. This is the way to [develop] quality and professional players for our country.”
Solomon Kebede, 44, who lives in Lege Tafo, 30 kilometres from the Stadium, is another eager parent who appreciates Sewnet’s efforts. He has to show up at the venue with Kaleab, 11, at 7 AM every weekend. His son joined the training centre almost one year ago. “Now I see significant improvement in his skills,” Solomon says.
Kaleab wants to be a renowned left winger. Of the local players, Adane Girma, who plays for the St. George FC, is his favourite. At the international level, he admires the career of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese footballer who plays for Real Madrid. “I am happy because my skills are developing,” he says.
Trainees are expected to pay a monthly fee of ETB550, which includes taxes. Furthermore, the company deals with the parents regarding potential compensation it will collect in the future if a player from the centre joins a football club.
“This does not mean we only admit those who can pay. We have trainees who are not paying because of financial limitations. We consider those who are really talented but cannot afford the fees,” Sewnet explains. “Our regular expenses are high. We need to pay salary for six trainers, including me, and other administrative staff. The office and training fields have rental fees. A single ball costs us ETB2,700.”
Mekonnen Kuru, Technical Director at the Ethiopia Football Federation (EFF), appreciates everyone who is working on grassroots talent development. “We encourage private football developers. We want them to strengthen themselves. Then, who knows, they may eventually acquire their own plot of land to build football academies. This is part of our development package. We want to see more private football developers,” he says.
Despite these encouraging words, however, parents who attend training sessions at Abebe Bikila Stadium seem disappointed by the lack of attention given to youth development from federal football administrators. “We need to give recognition to the people who are working with kids,” says Tsigemariam. “Unfortunately that is not happening here. Look, we arrive here in the morning and wait until the adults, who play football for fun, leave the pitch when they decide to finish.”
Another parent echoes these sentiments: “We need to have these kinds of training centres everywhere. The Federation and the government should be serious when it comes to skill development programmes,” says Solomon.
To that end, foreign teams are helping to create a culture of youth football development. Coaches from Arsenal FC, a giant club from the English Premier League that is partnered with Dashen Brewery, are providing trainings to select Ethiopians, including Sewnet, who are working on grassroots development.
Private trainers are expected to obtain a certificate of accreditation from the Ministry of Youth and Sport before they process their license from the Ministry of Trade. According to Mekonnen, the qualification certification requirement is of the utmost importance. “Since these people work with kids, we need to be very cautious.”
Sewnet agrees. He says coaching kids is a big responsibility. “Providing technical and tactical training is only part of the job. Managing young players requires extra skills beyond football knowledge,” he stresses. “Parents do not bring their children to you just to show them how to hit the ball hard and run. They want you to be their child’s mentor.”
While Sewnet and his colleagues have come this far, neither the EFF nor the Ministry of Youth and Sport appear to be pursuing immediate, unified football development reform. Hundreds of others who train kids throughout the country do not have specialised trainings or trainer’s manuals.
“Unless there is a similar vision from the national football administration, the coaches will teach the kids their own way of playing football,” says Girmachew Kebede, a university instructor and freelance sport journalist. He believes there must be a comprehensive plan for talent development, suggesting that experts should work together to understand the country’s weaknesses and identify the major problems that need to be addressed.
“That was how Germans revolutionised their football programme to conquer the world after their failure in the 2000 Euro Championship. Now the English Football Association is working hard to produce the type of players they lack to compete in modern football,” argues Girmachew. “In Ethiopia, we still argue whether our players are technically gifted. Some say our major problem is physical fitness training. Others think we should still focus on individual skill trainings.”
According to Girmachew there is no research-based evidence regarding which way to move forward. “Let’s take Edelu Dereje (the midfield player who retired more than a year ago) and Sewnet Bishaw. Both represent different generations,” he added. ‘‘They may have different views on how the game should be played. The kind of player they want to produce might be different, too. This gap will only be closed if there is one vision among them.”
Sewnet agrees with Girmachew’s analysis. “We (private trainers) might produce our own strategic plan considering the trainees’ age category and our organisational goals. But we need to have a manual declaring the country’s football objectives,” he says.
The Technique Department at the EFF claims the office is working with the FIFA grassroots development documents to produce a manual for the Ethiopian context. “We want to have our own way of playing football. We need to identify our strengths and weakness. That is how our football will find its own identity. Then we can have our own football philosophy,” says Mekonnen. “The athletics world recognises the Ethiopian way of running. Our football needs to find its own way, too.” EBR
4th Year • June 16 2016 – July 15 2016 • No. 40