Football, or soccer as you may call it, is the only sport people care about here. Well except WWE Smackdown wrestling, but that’s a whole other story for another day. Anyway Africa is right in the middle of the African Cup of Nations where qualifying national teams compete for the right to say they are the best team on the continent. I’ve been watching these games over the past few months in a variety of venues, with a variety of people, and want to share my experiences.
Ethiopia v. Sudan
Ethiopia got their hopes up for the tournament a few months ago when they beat Sudan to qualify for the tournament for the first time in 31 years. I watched this game, back in October, at my host family’s house in Asella. I wasn’t following the national team at the time, and really didn’t understand the importance of the game; everyone else did, and were quick to enlighten me. The Walya Antelopes, Ethiopia’s official team name, beat Sudan 2 to 0 in front of thousands of patriotic fans in Addis Ababa. The national TV network, Ethiopian TV, played the goal highlight reel constantly for the next two weeks. Every broadcast started out with a re-run of the famous goals. There were speeches from important politicians and candid clips of painted fans running and rolling (literally) through the streets of Addis Ababa. They kept showing this one guy decked out in Ethiopian gear doing a celebratory wheelie in his wheel chair. Then they would cut to another fan who was almost unintelligibly horse from screaming all day but still managed to express his excitement and gratitude for the Ethiopian national team. Ethiopia’s richest business man, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi, pledge to give the team 10,000,000 birr as a reward for their victory.
Despite the hype, most Ethiopians understood that the real odds for their beloved team were abysmal. Ethiopia was ranked near the bottom among the qualifying national teams and everyone knew it. My host brother Wogany explained it to me like this: “Ethiopia, she has no money, so she cannot afford to keep her good players home.” Unfortunately he’s right. Leading up to the tournament, countries scramble to improve and refine their team’s roster by head hunting for players that have abandoned their poor homelands for the fame, glory, and money of lucrative international leagues. I don’t know what Ethiopia’s budget is for this team, but imagine that it’s pretty low compared to other powerhouse countries like Egypt which has traditionally dominated the African Cup. Ethiopia pulled players from wherever she could to create the national team for the tournament. Most of the players are local Ethiopians, but one of these players came all the way from Minnesota after leaving Ethiopia as a child with his emigrating parents. Read the article here. But just like all big sporting events, national pride, unrealistic dreams, and optimism flourished in Ethiopia leading up to the big tournament which started in late January.
Ethiopia v. Zambia
Unfortunately, I missed this game. I was returning from celebrating the Epiphany holiday of Timket and was riding on a bus while this game played out. Everyone on the bus knew the game was happening, but we couldn’t get a reliable radio signal in the mountains of Tigray between towns. One passenger had a mobile phone with a TV antenna so was able to receive bits and pieces of the game while we all peered on with jealous curiosity at his tiny 4cm screen. We arrived in Abi Adi half way through the second half, but I was too exhausted from travel to stop at a café and watch the rest. Plus I knew Ethiopia was behind by a goal at that point, and figured this was just the final nail in the coffin of Ethiopia’s tournament dreams. However, Ethiopia surprised everyone and scored a goal, despite being one man short, to tie the game. I was walking to my house through the deserted streets and heard Ethiopia’s goal voiced by the cheering crowds filling every café, restaurant, and bar. It was like Abi Adi cheered as one collective super-fan. This game ignited a spark of hope in many, myself included, who had dismissed Ethiopia’s chances in the tournament. Although the first game was only a draw, the bracket scoring of football tournaments means that Ethiopia gained some credit and had a chance to proceed.
Ethiopia v. Burkina Faso
I went to watch this game at the local DSTV house. Most towns have a few of these houses which show international football matches from a satellite signal. Abi Adi’s main DSTV house is in the middle of town and has dirt floors, rows and rows of uncomfortable and primitive eucalyptus tree benches, and black tarps for walls to keep the light out. Some DSTV houses will have a speaker outside broadcasting the game so that by passing fans might be enticed to enter. Boys wait around outside hoping a generous adult will pay their admittance fee. This house also has door prizes, given away in the second half. I’ve seen jerseys given away, but have heard of chickens serving as the door prize too. They will give away the chicken at halftime, so the “winner” has to hold the poor bastard for the rest of the game. Also they don’t serve beer, so that sucks, because you need something to distract you from the heat and smell.
Anyway for this game, the room was packed full of guys (and a very few women) sitting on the benches watching Ethiopia take on Burkina Faso. It’s always hot, stinky, and loud inside. I was told to take a seat where there was no seat between two guys. I crammed myself in. There wasn’t enough room on the bench for my ass, so instead I sat on the bench with my knee pits while the rest of my body was cantilever out over my wedged legs in a very uncomfortable stance. It was extremely awkward, and I was thankful when Burkina Faso’s goal keeper got a red card 15 minutes into the game. Everyone stood up to cheer, allowing me to readjust a bit. After that bit of good luck for Ethiopia, things crumbled quickly. After the third unanswered goal against Ethiopia, all of the fans got up in disgust and left. It was a quiet night after that. This loss meant Ethiopia still had a chance to progress in the tournament, but only if they either won or tied in the next game and other key teams (Zambia) lost.
Ethiopia v. Nigeria
The two most populous countries on the continent battled it out intensely for most of the game as scoreless equals until a few defensive mistakes by Ethiopia allowed Nigeria to score. I watched this game in the living room and/or bar of a local Abi Adi family. This family runs a café or bar but have decided to use the main space as their living room too. I entered the room with two friends to find the family eating dinner and drinking Sewah. Demonstrating typical Ethiopian hospitality, they just scooted over on the sofas and got us plates of K’ai wat and “dirty water” while we all watched the game together. Ethiopia played reasonably well, or Nigeria played unreasonably poorly, depending on your perspective. Regardless, it made for a pretty interesting and well balanced match. Late in the game, Ethiopia’s goal keeper fouled a striker, resulting in a red card. Since Ethiopia had already made all substitutions, they had to a pull a midfielder out of play to serve as an improvised goal keeper. They gave him the keeper’s special jersey, but had to correct the number on the back with athletic tape to make it “official”. Only in the African Cup of Nations would you see a jersey being amended with athletic tape because no authentic spares could be produced. Quite a contrast from the big budget European leagues. Anyway, this poor midfielder had to pretend he was a goalie and attempt to block a penalty kick from Nigeria’s best striker. He couldn’t and Ethiopia’s African Cup dreams were definitively laid to rest. We went home quietly, disappointed again.
Until Next Time
I suppose sports and leisure are slow in developing in Ethiopia where there are few resources for basic medical needs and infrastructure let alone stadiums, league organizations, and after-school sports programs. Plus Ethiopia’s been busy recovering from the brutal military regime of the Derg rather than cultivating world class footballers. However, football remains the passion of almost every Ethiopian boy as made obvious by their dogged determination to play with whatever they can. These boys use rocks as goal posts, cheap plastic sandals as cleats, and rags as balls. But they love it and continue to pursue the only sport that’s really feasible in this environment. All you need is a bit of land to serve as an improvised pitch, something round to kick, and a few friends. Izoha Ethiopia; be strong! Your time will come!