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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Ethiopia African Cup of Nations Excitement Tempered By Lowly Ranking

Betemariam Hailu

With the Confederation of African football organising the African Cup of Nations in an odd numbered year, from 2013, there was little time to hold the usual long qualifying process. Instead, a two round system was put in place, with participants in the 2012 finals seeded in the second round, while other countries started in the first round. Two rounds made the qualifiers more than a bit different, with Egypt, Cameroon and Senegal all missing out. Ethiopia and Cape Verde were the surprises, booking a spot in the finals. For the Ethiopians especially, the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa is something to get very excited about.

4th October was a highly anticipated day in Ethiopia. The local media had no concern other than letting the public know the day had arrived to head back to the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 31 years. The Addis Ababa Stadium, that hosted the third, seventh and tenth editions of the continent’s biggest football tournament, had another chance to shine. Thousands surrounded the stadium on 3rd October and spent the night there, with mass singing and fireworks. The price of a ticket skyrocketed up to ten times the normal amount. No one wondered why, because everyone was hungry to join the football fiesta. And thanks to two late goals, Ethiopia were able to beat neighbours Sudan on away goals and reach the finals – the wait had been worth it.

Ethiopia was one of the founding football areas. Alongside neighbours Sudan and Egypt, the country founded the Confederation of African Football. Ethiopia were the first to set up the continental tournament in 1958, with the help of their neighbours, while it was an Ethiopian who blew the first whistle of the event, Gebeyew Dube, who was the African Cup of Nations’ first referee. They were also the first finalists of the competition, as South Africa withdrew from the tournament. With no match, Ethiopia reached the final, becoming the only nation in history to reach the final of a major international tournament without playing a single match. The only game played, the final, saw them lose 4-2 to Egypt.

The country did win the third tournament they hosted, beating Egypt to gain revenge. But they then failed to compete as the African Cup of Nations grew up in every aspect. The last time they qualified was back in 1982. That occasion was similar to the most recent, when tens of thousands spent the night waiting for a second leg match against Guinea. And Ethiopia qualified on the away goals rule. The team came back home though having conceded eight and scored none. Many fear the current side will face the same fate.

This year’s tournament has already brought much for the East African underdogs. They have already been sponsored by big international companies, while the players will have the chance to showcase their talents. The team is predominantly composed of local-based players in the semi-professional Ethiopian Premier League. Ethiopia have never produced big-name players, although against Sudan they did feature Egypt-based striker Saladin Seid, who netted the winner. Elsewhere, Fikru Tefera turned out in South Africa, but has since featured in Finland, while he is now in Thailand.

The current squad has the bulk of the local players who played in the qualifiers, but three are foreign-based players. Saladin Seid is the team’s highly trusted striker and has scored six times in four games. The other two are Yussuf Saleh, a winger at Swedish team Syrianska and striker Fuad Ibrahim, who turns out for American side Minnesota Stars. Coach Sewnet Bishaw is very experienced in Ethiopian football history and has even had spells abroad, in countries such as Yemen. Bishaw has managed to win the local CECAFA Challenge Cup twice and is known for his aggressive and defiant nature.

The 60-year-old tactician favours a 4-4-2 or, when defending, a 4-5-1, often playing Saladin as a lone striker. Central midfielders are expected to be aggressive and creativity comes from the flanks. When Bishaw faces relatively larger sides, he can even switch to a 4-2-3-1, with Saladin again up front and a number 10 just behind; all the other players are defensive.

In December, Ethiopia played fellow 2013 finalists Niger at home in a friendly, winning 1-0. The goal came from the right flank, but chances from elsewhere were created too. Still, using the flanks is the coach’s preferred attacking method. Many have criticised Bishaw’s approach though, as Ethiopians are not considered the best aerially and have often conceded many goals from headers.

Other friendlies before the tournament have been promising, with a 1-1 draw against Tunisia and a 2-1 victory over Tanzania. Ethiopia though are the lowest ranked team at the African Cup of Nations, sitting 31st in Africa, while the only other qualifiers close are the DR Congo in 29th. Whatever the case may be, the surprise qualifiers can cause more than the odd shock. Bishaw has taken Zambia, who won the trophy against all expectations at the last African Cup of Nations, as his inspiration.

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