Ethiopia come out of wilderness

Whappens to Ethiopia in the final Group C game against Nigeria, they’ve more than exceeded expectations on their return to the Cup of Nations big time.

Ethiopia is a country whose struggles with famine and civil war were for a time synonymous with its continent's image. Within that wider context Ethiopia's most popular sport, and yes football is more popular than running, also suffered.

Its team and administrators had helped first establish the CAN in Africa 60 years ago, but even as peace came, along with a slow spread of relative prosperity, football struggled to regain its footing.

Just three years ago Ethiopia returned to the international game after being banned by Fifa over infighting among its then shambolic federation.

A year after that return Iffy Onuora, the former Huddersfield and Gillingham striker, was presented with a training pitch with cattle grazing in the centre circle in the early days of his time as the country's coach.

The talent that’s done so well in South Africa was immediately evident to Onuora.

“The talent has always been there,” he says. “The biggest problem was the organisation. I realised that within a few minutes of being with the players and watching them train.”

“They are naturally gifted and play what I call street football. They are good in tight situations with the ball.”

"Ethiopia is obviously known for its track and field but it's a football-crazy country. You only have to walk around Addis to see they are obsessed with the Premier League. Football is a big thing, in many ways the main thing."

“The president of the federation told me they were football crazy and he wasn’t wrong in that respect. They know their football and expected better.”

There were frustrations during his time surrounding facilities, which are improving thanks to assistance from Fifa's Goal project – including the building of all-weather surfaces, vital in a country that has a long rainy season – and, indeed, the Premier League which has given financial help and held coaching seminars.

The disillusionment the fans felt would have been heightened by the internal squabbling within the federation was accompanied by an unbelievable managerial casualty rate. Onuora was one of 15 to hold the post in 11 years. But, overseen by Fifa, the federation has reformed and laid solid foundations. There is greater stability on the playing side too under the guidance of Sewnet Bishaw, a home-grown coach.

"We designed a strategic plan on where we are, where we went wrong and how we can improve. Today's improvement is the result of what we did," said Sahilu Gebremariam, the federation's president.

There is a rose-tinted realism to ambitions on and off pitch, with plans to build a new 60,000-seat stadium in Addis, with further ground improvements across the country.

Better facilities will help improve the player base, while the chance to play in a major finals gives players the opportunity to catch the eye of clubs in the likes of South Africa and Egypt – players and coaches need wider experience.

Onuora pinpoints gaining wider experience as the key to sustaining the current progress.

At least there is so much more information available now on Ethiopian football. "It is like a Martian arriving in English football and having to get a handle on it, working out who runs what, who funds what," says Onuora.

As he prepared for the job in the summer of 2010, he took to googling his players to try to learn more about them. It proved in vain – this was a step into the unknown.

It wasn’t always so. The country was one of the founding members of the African confederation and played in the first Cup of Nations in 1957. It has hosted the event three times and in 1962 lifted the trophy as hosts.

The cup  was presented to Mengistu Worku, their greatest player, by Haile Selassie himself. Worku was manager 20 years later when they last qualified for the finals.

Then came the wilderness years.


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