Ethiopian football matches are often sites of clashes between fans and referees. This dynamic is particularly heightened during high-stakes matches for championship titles or between rival teams. Some argue that officials who preside over matches need to be better trained and equipped to deal with the fast-paced, often dangerous nature of the sport. EBR’s adjunct staff writer Abiy Wendifraw used these clashes as an opportunity to learn more about the challenges of refereeing in Ethiopia and what needs to be done to improve the profession.
Yosef Taju, 29, is a regular attendee of the football matches at Addis Ababa Stadium. He watches almost every home game of his favourite team – the Ethiopian Coffee Football Club – the Premier League club that is known for its colourful fans.
The match between Ethiopian Coffee and Hawassa City FC was an especially popular match, prompting fanfare and anticipation from all spectators, even neutral fans. “I had been looking forward to watching my team and invited my two friends to join me. But everything that happened that Friday night (June 10, 2016), was horrifying,” recalls Yosef. “The game did not last for 45 minutes when violence erupted in the stadium. Nobody knew where to run, but everyone was running towards safety.”
Even after leaving the venue, he had to keep running to escape from the clashes between aggressive fans and police outside of the arena. “Though my residence is around Teklehaimanot, I was running in the opposite direction, towards Meskel Square. I was worried about my friends because they were not answering their phones even after 30 minutes. Later, I learnt they arrived home safely, so I was relieved.”
But what he saw on his way out of the venue will stay in his memory. “Fans were throwing chairs, water bottles, gravel and even metal pieces towards the away team’s fans and police officers. Yosef remembers he saw a few people get kicked and stumble to the ground. Terrified kids and female spectators were everywhere.
The specific incident that caused the arena to erupt in chaos occurred when Hawassa took the lead in the game within 30 minutes. Ethiopian Coffee fans believed the goal should have been prohibited, thinking the other player who passed the ball to the scorer was in the offside position. But the officials allowed the goal to stand. Then a fan ran on to the pitch to attack the referee, only to be blocked by players – soon others followed his lead. When mass fighting broke out in the stands, players ran to the dressing room. Security officers helped the match officials find their way to the tunnel.
Football observers say the incident could have been worse, suggesting they highlight the dynamics between match officials and fans. “You can imagine what would happen to the match officials in stadiums with poor facilities and weak security,” says Nura Imam, a sports writer for Dire Tube. “Stadiums in regional towns are unsafe for referees when violence like this occurs.” But she believes building fences that shield the pitch from spectators might not be the best solution. “First, we have to remind ourselves that referees are humans and understand their limitations.”
She says that match officials often receive hostility and complaints for decisions they make. “I do not remember a single penalty decision that the conceding team’s players accepted without swarming around the referee. You see players complaining after every booking and throw-in decision. At post-match press conferences, coaches from the losing side tell journalists how the referee robbed them of precious points. Fans leave the stadium blaming the officials,” Nura reflects.
Referees often occupy a precarious position during football matches and must be prepared for whatever may come their way, including violence. According to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), “The speed and movement of today’s top-level football, allied to the intense media focus on the action on the field, means that match officials must be well-prepared, highly-trained athletes who also have tactical acumen, the mental strength to withstand pressure and the ability to take split-second decisions with confidence and consistency.”
Still, there are people who think players are responsible for fans’ rage and excessive reactions against referees. Spectators are easily provoked by the body language and disobedience of players and coaches.
But match officials don’t solely get harmed at attacks lobbied specifically at them – sometimes they’re caught in the middle of other clashes. When fans fought in Gondar two months ago, the issue was not refereeing. Still, the man who officiated the game between Dashen Beer and Ethiopian Coffee was struck by thrown objects, and later he had to continue his job after receiving medical treatment for his bleeding head.
Confederation of African Football instructor Shiferaw Eshetu, 66, who produced almost all the current senior referees in the country, believes match officials are targets for everyone. “We do not meet people who say ‘we won the game because of the referee’s wrong decision.’ But we hear people saying ‘the referee destroyed us’.”
Nura agrees. “Sometimes, you may hear a team that was actually defeated by a four goal margin blame the referee for the fourth goal they conceded.”
Though she condemns the way arbiters are treated in Ethiopian football, she believes that referees have a lot to improve. Some officials struggle in decision making, lack of physical fitness and fail to deal effectively with pressure. “At times, the referee and the linesman fail to communicate and direct their arms in two opposite directions,” says Nura. “There are referees who blow a whistle for a penalty when they are 30 metres away from the incident.”
Some football insiders argue that more needs to be done to ensure that lacklustre refereeing doesn’t become more of a burden to the sport. “As the number of championships grows, we need to have hundreds of referees. We have to work on the quality,” says Shiferaw. With this in mind, the man who worked within the sport for 46 years – first as a referee and later as an instructor – thinks refereeing in Ethiopia is not suffering from a lack of competence. The country has 22 international-standard match officials. “You cannot have all these good officials at the international level from a bad pool. If we think that they are underperforming in domestic games, we need to investigate their challenges here,” he argues.
Shiferaw says that problems may stem from not understanding the Ethiopian Football Federation’s (EFF) rules, which may lead to misinformed calls. “I can see a lot of ridiculous accusations that [stem from] from a lack of awareness on the laws of the game. I have been campaigning for wide sensitisations on football rules to players and fans. Coaches must learn them before they finish their licensing course. But they still need to update themselves as some of the rules are continuously amended.”
The UEFA agrees, stating that even the most seasoned referees need to hone their skills: “Refereeing at the highest level must develop constantly, to keep in tune with the demands of the modern-day high-pace game.” This development includes intensive fitness training, medical examinations and continuous education.
To that end, Shiferaw produced a football rules book in 2000. The EFF publishes and distributes it. He is always working to update the book with the amended articles.
Every week, the EFF carries out more than 100 games throughout the country. More than 400 officials are assigned to these matches. Officials are paid ETB1,000 per game in the Premier League, ETB800 for Super League matches, ETB550 in the National League, ETB800 for the Women’s Premier League and ETB500 for the U-17 championship. Those who travel to regional towns to officiate a game will be paid up to four days of per diem at a rate of ETB1,000 per day. Shiferaw, who used to receive only ETB15 per game in 1995 when he was an international-standard referee, says that compensation is good now.
Regardless of the risks, a number of people say refereeing is a pleasurable job. Lidiya Tafesse, 33, an international referee, encourages more girls to join the profession. “People think refereeing is not an attractive job. But I am happy for everything I’ve achieved through it,” she says. The mother of one invites the early retired female footballers to consider this career. Leulseged Begashaw, 51, the former international referee who was recruited to officiate at the 2014 World Cup in Germany, believes that footballers may become excellent referees. “They can easily understand the intent behind players’ action,” says the man who now leads the referees committee.
Leulseged is confident that new young people will join the profession. Still, club officials complain that few referees are assigned to their games. “That is not because we have few referees. The same officials complain when we assign new faces. No one wants to give them the chance and acquire the experience. This is a big problem,” he says.
One referee, who spoke to EBR on the condition of anonymity, urges people in the administration to value people in the profession first. “I was among those referees who were attacked in the national league game this year. At times we find ourselves unprotected. We are under pressure [from the football administrators] to continue even when we should call the game off,” he says.
Despite the root causes of the problem, the continuous clashes at matches may hinder the ability for football to maintain its active fan base at game venues. Now that the Premier League’s season is finished, Yosef and his friends do not know whether they would go to the Stadium next time, citing the clashes between fans and officials as a main deterrent. “I cannot even imagine how it feels to be a referee. But I know that is not a job that I wish for my loved ones.” EBR
4th Year • July 16 2016 – August 15 2016 • No. 41