Female Footballers

For Female Footballers More Opportunities Than Before

The news that Lucy, the Ethiopian women’s national football team, would be competing for a spot in the African Cup of Nations competition was mired in controversy and hope. It represented a moment in which the team was rising to prominence on a continental level. The moment was indicative of a larger trend taking place in the Ethiopian football: more opportunities for women, as even the most elite clubs now own female teams. Still, as EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw explores, there’s still more work to be done to create a more equitable playing field for female football players.

When the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) called a press conference on Friday, November 13, 2015 at the Intercontinental Hotel, journalists who attended believed it was all about The Waliyas’ upcoming game. The assumption wasn’t unfounded: Addis Ababa Stadium – and the country as a whole – were eagerly awaiting Saturday’s match against Congo Brazzaville for the 2018 World Cup qualifier. Strange to the journalists, though, almost all the EFF officials were there. But there was nobody in the scene from the men’s national team, not even the coach or the team’s captain.
Federation President Junedi Basha took no time to introduce the agenda. “It’s about our national team,” he said. Yet, it was not about the national team that was awaiting a big game the next day. It was about Lucy, the national women’s team. Of course, rumours had circulated about a problem regarding Lucy. Some of the Premier League clubs already demanded explanations from EFF. “We are here to clear the air,” said the President, referring to the administrative blunder behind the Lucy’s dismissal from the 2016 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualification.
Junedin explained how his institution failed to respond to not just one, but four successive emails from the Confederation of African Football (CAF), the continental football governing body. Because of the Federation’s inability to respond to repeated invitation letters, Ethiopia was excluded from the draw at the CAF headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. The EFF officials knew they had to act. They decided to fire the General Secretary and the IT expert – and also suspended one member of the Executive Committee. The verdict left the media unsatisfied. Some of the journalists demanded the immediate resignation of all members of the Executive Committee.
This isn’t the first controversy to involve errant EFF officials. In 2013, FIFA sanctioned Ethiopia for fielding Minyahil Teshome, an ineligible player due to disciplinary infractions. The EFF officials at the time were quick to call a general assembly after they already sacked the General Secretary who was, ironically, blamed for not informing the coaching staff and the team leader about Teshome’s yellow cards.
Though he received no applause in the press room, Junedin mentioned his visit to Cairo to talk to CAF officials to remedy the situation. Many even laughed when he addressed the plan’s viability: “We have a 50-50 chance. The officials promised me they would give us the first chance if any country misses out in the qualification stage,” he said. “We all know the common trend of national teams dropping out of the competitions for different reasons.”
Three months after the news conference, Junedin’s thoughts proved prescient: CAF officials informed the EFF that they could acquire Togo’s place in the competition. Berhanu Gizaw, Lucy’s head coach, remembers how he learnt the big news: “My mobile phone was ringing while I was on the training ground. I didn’t answer. Then I found a text message from a sport journalist,” he recalls. “Frankly speaking, at first I was not an optimist on the issue. When it happened, my players were over the moon. Had it not been for the EEF’s extra effort, the consequences could have potentially damaged the development in the country’s women football programme.”
Asrat Abate, the head coach of the Under-17 and Under-20 female teams says the news bodes well for the nation’s women’s soccer pipeline: “Where would we send our young players if the national team is out of competitions? Basically we are working on youngsters to feed and strengthen the national team in the coming years.”
Indeed, strides have been made in improving the status of women’s football in Ethiopia. Two years ago, the EFF required that all Premier League clubs form women’s teams. This shift created more opportunities for female footballers: a few years ago there were fewer than eight women teams registered by the EFF. Now all 14 clubs in the League are expected to have their own women’s team.
Still, Asrat insists the Federation needs to enforce clubs to keep their female teams. “Currently two of these clubs ceased their women teams. Unless the EFF addresses the problem, others may follow them.”
Wondimkun Alayou, Head of Public Relations at the EFF, says this problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by his institution. “We considered their financial situation to maintain their women teams,” he says. “Forcing them all the way might put the whole club in trouble. We are looking at other alternatives to fix the problem.”
Asrat says the Federation and clubs should start working on grassroots development projects to cultivate future talent. “Recently, we witnessed how our U-20 team challenged the experienced [team] from Cameroon. We did great in expanding the pool for more players. Now we should think about the quality as well,” he argues.
Leoul Tadesse, a freelance sport journalist, sees some relative improvements in the league competition balance. “Though the proven top players are still concentrated in two or three teams, I am not watching them trashing their opponents by 13-0 like before,” which suggests greater parity than before, says Leoul. Still, Asrat believes the improvement is insignificant. “The goals are still pouring in. I think it takes time to balance the completion.”
High paying clubs already built their team using the top players the country has produced. The same clubs would acquire emerging new talents. All of the top 25 high-earning female players in Ethiopia now represent either the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) or Dashen Brewery clubs. Of these, the top nine salaries in the league top ten are CBE’s players. Shitaye Sisay is the highest paid, with a monthly gross salary of ETB20,833.
These promising teams have created a pipeline of female players who show immense promise on a regional and continental level. The players from the leading state-owned bank’s team now dominate the national team too. More than the 50Pct of Berhanu’s players are now from CBE. Eleven of the 20 players on the national team that went to Algeria in early March were also from the same club.
Despite the strides being made to create greater equality in Ethiopian football, disparities still exist. Clubs now pay ETB20,000–ETB50,000 to their women’s team male coaches. The women coaches are still earning ETB10,000- 15,000 which is much less than the average salary range in the country’s women’s football standard. “The job is dominated by male coaches. Only a handful of women coaches exist in the business,” says the Head of Public Relations at the EFF. “FIFA encourages us to work on producing more female coaches. At the same time we should work on the facilities too.”
According to Wendimkun, running both men’s and women’s leagues at the same time is challenging. “We do not have enough stadiums,” he said, mentioning the two stadiums in Addis. “Now CBE’s stadium construction is finished. If other clubs could do the same, games could be played on their own ground.”
The other challenge the Federation faces relates to the management of promoted clubs that join the ranks of the EFF each year from the National League. When a new club joins the Federation by winning the lower league, they will only have two or three months to prepare for the next season. Creating women team and staffing is always a headache for the newcomers. The Federation is still struggling to find a sponsor for the Lucys. “We are now negotiating with a bank,” said Wendmkun
Asrat sees positives through all these challenges. “Now female players know that the chance is always there if they work hard. In the past we lost very good talent because there was no reward. Some of the players gave up and went to colleges to begin another career. Others even fled to Arab countries looking for jobs.”
In addition to the Premier League, there is the annual Coca-Cola women’s championship between schools. Clubs anticipate the competition every year, as it provides an opportunity to recruit new players. “Looking at all these changes, now some of the early retired players are also coming back to the game. Things look better,” Asrat says.
The national team captain and record goal scorer, Birtukan Gebrekrstos, 27, hopes that she and her compatriots will progress. “In international matches, we were not scoring enough in the last four years. Now we have good players.” It is not difficult to guess Loza Abera, 19, is one of those players Birtukan is talking about. Loza’s name is becoming very familiar. In her three years experience, the girl from Durame, a small administrative center of the Kembata Tembaro Zone in the Southern state, already scored seven goals with the national team jersey. “I will always offer the best in me. My friends are very focused now.”
Berhanu agrees. “The team chemistry is very good. We have both young and senior players. Our job is to mix the talent with experiences.” EBR


4th Year • March 16 2016 – April 15 2016 • No. 37

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