The joy of the Ethiopian football fans after their team’s victory over South Africa was peerless. It took the whole nation by surprise. Yet, it was destined to remain only for a very short period of time. The following day, the administrative failings of the team’s management placed a dark cloud over the entire nation.
Last Sunday afternoon, tens of thousands of young football fans took to the main streets of Addis Abeba to demonstrate their jubilation. The Ethiopian national football team, the Walias, had just beaten their rivals, South Africa, the Bafana Bafana, by two goals to one, in a crucial World Cup qualifying match.
The match, as expected, was dominated by the South Africans. Sewnet Bishaw, the coach of the Walias, had told Ethiopians in advance that his boys would be suffering from fatigue and exhaustion, from their numerous international meets within a relatively short period of time. Given some of the body language and tired touches of the Ethiopian team during the match, he was only to be proved right.
The ball could not be contained much under the control of our boys and in around the 37th minute, one of the Bafana Bafana strikers, Bernard Parker, latched on to a long pass from his goalkeeper and shot a left foot missile past the goalkeeper, who tumbled head over heels, harvesting only thin air in lieu of the ball. Silence reigned all around the field, except for the protracted cheering of the few in the South African envoy.
A little while later, however, the silence was broken and the muted spectators came back to life. The Ethiopian strikers combined brilliantly in the tight penalty area, before the ball was squeezed through to Getaneh Kebede, who found himself at the right place at the right time to realise his promise of scoring a goal.
Yes, Getaneh, as usual, found the back of the net, to bring the scores level at one all. That gave a glimmer of hope to the home side who, despite early tension, began playing much better in the second half, following a couple of substitutions.
The moment of joy came around 12 minutes before the game came to an end. A free-kick from the right flank caused confusion in the penalty area and Bernard Parker, who had earlier put South Africa ahead, headed spectacularly past the stranded South African goalkeeper into his own net. The fans erupted into a wild celebration, which, despite obvious tension, was maintained in order to cheer the tiring Walias on.
Time was dragging its feet. Every second seemed to be multiplying itself. Every kick by members of the Ethiopian team in any direction was taken as a step closer to victory. As if the emotional stress was not enough, five long minutes of extra time had to be endured after the 90 minutes was up.
There were some passionate people who knelt down on their knees to pray. Last minutes in football matches are moments of life or death, and the seconds ticked away slowly. But, the ball kept on moving this way and that, rarely threatening the Ethiopian goal, however. The Egyptian official finally glanced down at his watch and blew his whistle. The game was over. Withheld and suppressed emotions suddenly exploded. The eruption of joy was boundless.
Hundreds cried and shed tears of joy. There were floods of boys running around and yelling in high pitched voices, frolicking like small calves around their lactating mother.
The elderly parents of these youngsters were stunned into a more muted celebration. The result had been incredible. Some people felt that the fans who had braved the rainy weather and starvation, due to a scarcity of food around the Stadium, deserved the victory.
The cumulative 13 points seemed to warrant the passing of the Ethiopian team into the third and final round of qualification matches. Indeed, it was an insurmountable total with just one game remaining and South Africa five points adrift. The case seemed to be closed.
With the advantage of hindsight, it was evident that this victorious figure of 13 was further out of reach for at least four people in the innermost orbit of power in the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF). These leaders knew better, but had conspired not to release the information until they knew the result of the match.
They said they concealed the bad news in order to save the players from shock and psychological fall out. They have to be thanked, at least for the celebratory evening we enjoyed at our favourite nightspots, and the unperturbed mood we all embraced.
The story, sadly, did not end there, however. The next morning had a shocking and upsetting story in store for us. The International Football Association (FIFA) was alleged to be investigating a report that a few countries, including Ethiopia, had fielded players illegitimately, in contravention to FIFA rules and regulations.
The chains of officials were not available to answer questions from sport reporters. Famous sport journalists, like Abebe Gidey, spent the whole night browsing internet data, to the extent of checking the relevant articles stipulated in the FIFA provisions, in an effort to fish out a relevant base for defending the claim. The so called football officials did not need that, however.
They knew what had gone wrong, when and where. At last, the officials decided to face the truth and confess to the public. It was unfortunate that the officials, who were quick to consider raising the price of tickets, took so long to resolve the problem and announce their faults.
The confession was direct and brief. The president pleaded that they were guilty as a whole and had to accept FIFA’s ruling, without any appeal. And that was that.
Then, a series of officials, including the coach, expressed what they knew and what they did not know. The buck was passed from person to person.
Not one of them had the guts to resign. Each seemed to care less about their mistake, than the consequences that could follow, in terms of time and money. The game is not over yet. Both journalists and the four conspirators informed us that our fate is still in our own hands.
The seemingly inconsequential match between Ethiopia and the Central African Republic, this coming September, has suddenly become indispensible to the Walias’ progress. Ethiopia has to win that game to secure progress and to minimise the damage caused by the administrational error. Could there be some solace in that game?
We shall cross the bridge when we come to it. The green and yellow colour in town was previously simply a cover up of new government construction works, now it has become the national jersey colour of a great team in the making.
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