The history of football in Ethiopia somehow manifests the embodiment of the country’s victory against the colonial power. The defeat of the Italians at Adwa in 1896 convinced Europe of Ethiopia’s unyielding independence, forcing them to send diplomats instead. Thus, legend has it, was how football was introduced to Ethiopia.
During the brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936-1941), under the Fascist racial policy, Ethiopians were barred from playing football with Europeans. Ironically, in the aftermath of the Italian’s defeat, a football match was held between the all-Ethiopian team of St. George, lead by Ydneqatchew Tessema, father of Ethiopian football, and an Italian football team, Fortitudo, in Addis Abeba, 1942. The Italian team lost.
By the time the national team had won the only African Cup, the third edition held in 1962, the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) had been around for almost two decades. Half a century since then, most African national teams, since having won their independence from colonial rule, could easily beat their mentor, Ethiopia. This is a textbook example of a backward progression.
Still, football is a national obsession.
Paradoxically, as the quality of football has foundered, the amount of money involved, sports programs mainly concerned with it and conversations geared towards the game have only intensified.
Although, there are many reasons behind the poor performance of Ethiopian football, inefficient administration, insufficient knowledge and skills in the area of football club management, lack of skills and talent, the absence of Grassroots Development Projects and untrained coaches are the most significant ones.
As the saying goes, a fish rots from the head down.
The Federation is best known for its controversies than good deeds. Whether it is intentional or not, since its inception, it has been hindered from taking actions. And after more than seven decades, it still finds itself governed by amateur practitioners and extended committees.
The problem starts with the intensely politicised elections of members of the general assembly who are supposed to be the heads of the Federation. In most cases, these people are not only unfamiliar with the sports, but also more concerned with the travel and allowances their position entitles them to. I remember in one of the usual controversial elections, the person who won a majority of the votes to become President of the Federation was proudly quoted saying that it had been 40 years since he attended a football match at the Addis Abeba Stadium. That sums up the whole story.
And it is from collections of these people that the nation is expected to transform the game miraculously. They are not visionary enough to think strategically and develop grassroots projects to produce the footballers of the next generations.
It is not the duty of the Federation to involve in the day to day operations, like handling fixtures and solving disputes among clubs of the Ethiopian Premier League.
In England, while the Football Association (FA) is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the amateur and professional game in its territory, the Premier League attends to the operations of the League. Hence, when we copy, let us at least make sure it is not only the terminology we steal but the inner structure of the system too.
Another negative contributing factor for the underdevelopment of football in this country is the gradual elimination of village playing grounds for construction. Unless youngsters are allowed to practice the sport, producing capable and healthy sportspersons is wishful thinking. Due to this, youngsters are forced to play football on the streets, which could be suicidal in a country where traffic accidents are too common.
It is crystal clear that there is no efficient and modern management of the sport in Ethiopia. This lack of sufficient knowledge and skills in the area of football club management is also a contributing factor.
Nonetheless, football players make more money than doctors. The profession is being mocked. And not just that, clubs are spending much more money than they are making.
To add salt to injury, hooliganism has been creeping into club competitions. In a country where freedom of speech is curtailed or does not even exist, football matches are nonetheless democratised. During the Dergue era, football matches between civilian and army clubs were an arena for discontent.
But, the present day violence has gone far, and it is a shame to witness supporters of particular clubs causing severe damage to their fellow Ethiopians. It is unfortunate that violent behaviours, which belong to the past, are being mirrored.
At times, it is the players who cause the violence. In the league, every decision by the referee is disputable, and a minute of silence is utterly unthinkable. Due to the ongoing intense verbal abuse and counter-insults of fans of different clubs, spectators are hardpressed to take their kids and partners to big matches.
Football is a pastime as brought to the public by the media. Thus, how the media perceives the sport is far-reaching. Just as much as it can stimulate feeling, it can fan the flames too; the former of which, the media is not doing adequately.
As Ethiopia is known as a sporting nation, with a robust fan base, football has been particularly prone to squabbling and corruption. Authorities should have to understand that football is not merely a case of 11 players kicking the ball. Instead, it is widely recognised as a sport with an immense socio-economic value. Thus, they have to work more on good governance in the sports world, and out of it too, to develop and prosper in a competitive and challenging environment. There are no shortcuts through this one.
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