BY ESKENDER TAMRAT

Ethiopian football hit a new low in the past few weeks, but the turmoil has only served to intensify public attention. It’s not often that football is billed as the country’s most burning issue.

The current state of affairs is a far cry from the memorable journey to the first AFCON staged after its switch to being held in odd-numbered years in 2013; although this doesn’t seem to deter the spectators from showing up at stadiums around the country. Positive signs have been scarce in the four years since the side led by traditionalist Sewnet Bishaw locked horns with the continent’s best in South Africa. Reaching the final play-off stage of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers was the last hurrah for the well-respected manager and the squad who were briefly touted as one of the best in Ethiopian football history.

When Ashenafi Bekele – whose job experience could be compared to Italy’s outgoing manager Giampiero Ventura whereby he only worked with modest clubs in a long career – took over the helm at the start of 2017, he was the fourth manager to be appointed in less than as many years. In the recent FIFA ranking, Ethiopia dropped to a lowly 151st place trailing the emerging Pacific minnows, New Caledonia. After seeing their 2018 World Cup hopes dashed in the preliminary round, the Walia Ibex started their 2019 AFCON qualifiers in the worst possible way with a 5-0 thumping at the hands of Ghana. Qualification hopes relied upon the expansion of the tournament to 24-teams, as much as anything.

Considering the national team barely plays friendlies and are consistently eliminated from the early stages of tournament qualifiers – the manager’s position was vacant for some four months prior to Ashenafi’s hiring – it has been very hard to grasp the identity of the team. Different coaches strived to make their marks, by way of major squad and system overhauls. And yet, Djibouti is the only side Ethiopia has managed to beat after eight matches under the tutelage of the new boss.

After initially losing a spot to fellow East African side Sudan in the play-off, Ethiopia had a chance to join the 2018 edition of the African Nations Championship (CHAN), a tournament exclusively featuring home-based players. CAF first handed the place to Egypt, who lost to Morocco in the North Zone qualifiers, after the latter replaced Kenya as the tournament’s hosts. But Egypt, whose qualification to the AFCON created waves all around, decided against making their CHAN debut as they were not ready to postpone their league season for a tournament staged outside FIFA’s international calendar.

CAF glanced over East Africa for the sixteenth team to feature in the tournament that is due in two months’ time. Ethiopia and Rwanda had just a few days to prepare for the two-legged qualifiers after CAF let them know of the new development. For some reason, Ethiopia wasted precious time before preparing their side while Rwanda assembled their team right away.

Ethiopia dominated the first leg at home before Rwanda snatched it with two late goals to take home a seemingly insurmountable 3-2 lead. The return fixture ended goalless and Ethiopia were eliminated from the tournament for the second time in less than three months. There were few complaints from those who were in attendance for the first game at the Addis Ababa Stadium, and rather refreshingly, the coach admitted in his post-match interview that he was at fault.

Although he – possibly justifiably – crucified the goalkeeper and wastefulness in front of goal by his attackers, Ashenafi took the responsibility for the defeat, which is something of an unusual gesture in Ethiopian football. And while the game held a certain amount of importance, the fans’ attention was already elsewhere. Uncharacteristically, the match was far from a sell-out. The previous match to take place in the capital city’s major stadium was likely responsible for the relatively small crowd.

Security concerns were hanging over the match ever since a late strike from Ethiopia Bunna’s iconic skipper Mesud Mohammed broke the resistance of holders Ethio Electric SC to secure a final berth for the country’s best supported club against its most successful one, Saint George SC, in the season’s curtain raiser – the Addis Ababa City Cup. It was the 12th edition of the pre-season tournament in which the capital city clubs set out to prepare themselves for the upcoming season. At least that was the initial idea.

With two guest clubs joining six Addis Ababa-based sides, the competition was held for a couple of weeks in Addis Ababa stadium. Since an extended gap between seasons is the rule rather than the exception in Ethiopia – a full three months passed since minnows Welayta Dicha snatched a sensational cup victory to end last year’s campaign – the warm-up tournaments across the country are usually met with hefty expectations.

Although the country is much more renowned known for its conveyor belt of incredible long-distance runners, Ethiopia has always been a football-mad country. Unsurprisingly, the English Premier League is the most followed league throughout the country. Among other things, the ticket for the 2013 African Cup of Nations after an absence of 31 years helped garner attention for domestic football. Simply put, nothing dominates the local media like football.

At club level, the attendance numbers have been swelled in recent years with the teams that are basically owned by city organisations having unequivocal support from its inhabitants. When it comes to the capital city, however, only two clubs can attract huge crowds and neither of them are administrated by the city’s officials. St. George is the most decorated club with fourteen titles since the national league was formed back in 1998. Ethiopia Bunna, incidentally the last team to be crowned in the national championship format, only managed to win the newly-formed league title once (2011).

And there is no love lost between the two clubs over the years. St. George is one for the traditionalists, as they served as the driving force behind Ethiopia’s only African Cup triumph back in 1962. In contrast, Bunna (known as ‘Yebuna Geta’ at the time of inception) was formed twelve years after the national team became the champions of Africa under the tutelage of St. George’s legendary figure, Yidnekatchew Tessema. A major restructuring in 1995 made Ethiopian Coffee an attractive place for fans searching for new pastures before their fanbase quickly grew to rise to the very top with the club’s adopted possession-based playing style.

So, it was natural to expect a grand spectacle when the two clubs reached a tournament final, albeit a pre-season one. According to the organisers over at Addis Ababa Football Federation, there were impressive attendance figures on every matchday – with either Bunna or St. George in action – as the fans of the city’s two most decorated clubs eagerly anticipated a glimpse of their teams’ progress. Ethiopia Bunna and St. George managed to finish top of their respective groups, forcing the hosts to revoke their initial plan of staging both semi-finals on the same day to avoid security concerns. This would also allow them to earn additional gate income.

The two sets of fans started queuing for tickets early in the morning of the final matchday. With the concept of e-ticketing yet to be implemented in Ethiopia, crucial fixtures were accompanied by long queues hours before the kick-off time. Speaking to the media, the organisers insisted that they had prepared correctly for the occasion and were keen to end what was a refreshing tournament on a positive note. As opposed to the national league, which is run by the much-maligned Ethiopian Football Federation, the mini-tournament saw the city’s football federation working side by side with the media.

The match itself didn’t live up to its billing though. Although St. George went close in the early proceedings through their long-time skipper Degu Debebe, chances were far and few between as both clubs struggled to create an opening in a packed midfield. Bunna’s best goal scoring opportunity went begging mid-way through the first-half as their exuberant attacker Samuel Sanumi fired a fierce drive wide. The powerful Nigerian, who previously plied his trade at St. George, was one of five foreigners who made the starting line-up of the two sides.

Most notably, both teams decided to go with foreign goalkeepers – as did the teams who clashed in the third-place play-off earlier – which further fuelled the subject of lack of trust in local custodians. Many claimed that only a select few of the overseas players justified their selections ahead of Ethiopian shot-stoppers. While St. George’s Ugandan international Robert Odongkara is the league’s most respected import, his opposite number, Hariston Hessou, is constantly in the firing line of the critics. The only time the Beninese keeper seems to be universally capable of bringing a smile is when he expertly pulls off Robert Kidiaba’s majestic ‘bum shuffle’.

And there was no need to do that on the stroke of half-time here. Instead, Hariston misjudged a half-hearted clearance by Abebaw Butaku, leaving St. George’s summer recruit Ibrahima Fofana with the goal at his mercy. For some reason, the Ivorian, whose brace helped Electric to a surprise win against his current club in last year’s final, opted to celebrate in front of the opposing fans’ section. However, this was not the place where crowd trouble broke out during the half-time break.

The TV commentator – this was a rare occasion that a match gets live broadcast coverage – wasted little time in denouncing the hooliganism by recalling derbies from all around the globe and how they are completely free from acts of violence. There was one point he forgot to mention, however. With the stadium’s capacity limited, and the large amount of fans packed in, there were hardly any free spots around the Addis Ababa Stadium.

With the exception of one wide stadium section, Katanga, where the two fans shared the zone, all areas have fences to separate the neighboring seats. Usually, Katanga is the main target of the security forces and there would be a considerable gap left between the sets of fans to allow them to control the situation. But, to the contrary of the organisers’ statements, it was obvious that the ill-tempered atmosphere would boil over into violence. Fans from both camps were injured as the fight escalated quickly into the throwing of already damaged chairs. In addition to the lack of segregation of supporters, the security forces came under scrutiny for standing idly by while the disturbances occurred.

The start of the second-half had to be delayed before the police forces and fans’ representatives finally managed to evacuate the section and send those who got injured, among whom were children and women, to where they could get a medical attention. The stadium is supposedly a welcoming place for all but that is far from the reality.

The second-half resumed in a rather muted mood and Fofana’s fortuitous strike was enough to help St. George lift the pre-season trophy for a record fifth time. In the closing stages – after they felt hard done by the referee’s decision to wave away a legitimate penalty-kick appeal for a handball – another horrific incident happened over at Bunna’s section with fans throwing things they could find nearby on to the pitch. With the stadium situated in the centre of the city, the chaos continued to some extent after the fans spilled out of the arena.

The whole incident comes as a big blow for football in Ethiopia after a relatively successful tournament up to that point. The representatives of the two sets of fans were presented with trophies ahead of the kick-off before it all went downhill by the midpoint of the fixture. Improvements have been made; fans’ associations moving ahead in registering members, but they are far from all-encompassing. The reaction on social media to the souring of the event was largely that of the fans playing the blame game and belittling each other. This has done little to raise any hopes of this not happening in future fixtures between them.

On a wider scale, it appears that the festival of the previous two weeks gave false hope for the 2016-17 Ethiopian Premier League season. There were clashes at a number of matches that took place outside Addis Ababa, but they went under the radar due to a lack of coverage.

A couple of weeks after the final of the capital city’s tournament, the league season kicked off with six fixtures – two matches involving Addis Ababa’s giants had to be postponed because three or more players were in national team action from both sides for the CHAN qualifiers. Fasil Kenema’s trip to debutants Welwalo Adigrat University was one of the standout fixtures of the round. The match started with a thrilling atmosphere before a late equaliser for the guests fuelled yet another episode of crowd violence.

In addition to the hooliganism, that fixture also brought the issue of pitch standards in the league to the fore. For all the new arenas that have been opened around the country, there are still a number of dreadful stadiums with bad playing surfaces and fences that don’t separate the fans from the action. But, amidst all the unrest, the focus has switched to football politics in the past few weeks in Ethiopia. The battle for the throne at the football association appears to be the topic on everyone’s lips.

The fact that there has been no club football due to the final rounds of World Cup qualification has allowed the media to solely cover the events unfolding at the FA’s annual general assembly. This being the fourth year under the current administration, the election for the president and executive committee members took centre stage when the dates for assembly was initially announced. But with less than a week before the general assembly, a series of letters to and from FIFA left the electoral process under a cloud of uncertainty.

There’s plenty of noise in the federation with increasing division between the members of the current administration. After Kenya were stripped of the CHAN hosting rights, a bid without the president’s blessing made its way to CAF before the organisation body declined it as it lacks the government’s letter of guarantee. Soon the inharmonious atmosphere escalated, as football fans were left to wonder what’s really at stake for the unpaid positions.

Having been irritated by the initial FIFA recommendation to postpone the election in order to meet the standard set by the world’s football governing body – and accusing the incumbent president Juneidi Basha of plotting to get it deferred – a team led by vice president Tekleweyni Assefa made further contacts with FIFA Secretary General, Fatma Samoura, on their own to get another notification that the election could be conducted on the scheduled date.

The fact that Juneidi targets a second stint as president was baffling. The soft-spoken leader struggled to assert his position during the recent turmoil and always cuts a stressed figure in his media appearances. He’ll not be the only one seeking another turn in office, however, with the versatile Dr. Ashebir Weldegiyorgis and his adversary Teka Asfaw returning to the scene. Personal rifts between the latter two presidential candidates made the headlines for the most part of the campaign.

Former player Anteneh Feleke is the only candidate who draws positive feedback from the public – not that football fans will be the ones to elect the president, anyway – but there are questions asked about his managerial experience and assertiveness. Meanwhile, the election for the executive committee was somewhat confused with the unwritten rule of one candidate per member federation ending up with 11 nominees vying for 10 membership spots.

Despite Juneidi’s assurance that it would definitely be postponed a day before the general assembly, the first issue of the meeting was whether they should proceed with the scheduled election. At the end, the assembly decided to postpone the election for 45 days after a close poll. The controversy doesn’t end there, as the main reason for stretching the election date – having an independent electoral commission – went rather unnoticed throughout the two-day meeting, while some argued such decisions should only be reached if they met with the acceptance of the two-thirds of the stakeholders.

The decision also kept the current administration in office beyond the expiry date, but all the spotlight after the meeting was turned to the inappropriate comments of Tekleweyni. The controversial vice president made remarks that the reason why the federation initially planned to take the general assembly to Afar was to escape the media attention – which made sense given the administration’s lack of a healthy relationship with the media in the past year – before spitting disrespectful comments in what he later defended as his way of dragging the election process to the city of Mek’ele.

He promptly lost his nomination, although the fact that it’s the sports’ bureau and not the regional football federation that issued the statement still raised questions whether it could be seen as a violation of political interference in sport. Further speculation is doing the rounds that Abebe Gelagaye, a member of the current executive committee and a representative from the Dire Dawa football federation, is facing a similar fate in the coming days.

The Afar region gets back the hosting of the electoral process and we could expect more changes to the nominations before next month’s election. A neutral electoral committee should also be formed weeks before the election. There are also additional pressing issues that happened to go unnoticed in the long list of Ethiopian football woes – 70% of “teenage” players failed to pass the MRI test as per the report presented in the general assembly, bad referring, match fixing concerns and traditional and competent clubs getting dissolved. A new administration with fresh insights and determination – if there is one – would go a long way to return Ethiopian football to its better days.

YOU CAN FOLLOW ESKENDER ON TWITTER @eskeBMG

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