Ethiopia rising

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Saladin Said has been a standard-bearer for Ethiopian footballAPSaladin Said has been a standard-bearer for Ethiopian football

Ethiopia were one of the founding fathers of the official framework of African football and were crowned champions in 1962, but they have never had a club in the group stages of a continental cup competition, until now. Saint George will play in the CAF Confederation Cup, despite losing to Egyptian side ENPPI 3-1 in the second leg, by virtue of away goals.

Much like AC Leopards, who won the Confederation Cup last year, are in CAF Champions League main draw this time and represent an overall rise in Congolese football, Saint George are doing the same for Ethiopia. The country, like Congo, also lies atop their World Cup qualification group and victories over Botswana and South Africa in the next two weeks could see them break away.

If they do, it would be an even bigger achievement than their qualification for the African Nations' Cup earlier this year. It was the first time in 31 years the team had made it to the event and they put up a spirited fight. Although Ethiopia left winless they held defending champions Zambia to a 1-1 draw and their much-talked about striker Saladin Said showed what he was capable of.

That was considered their turning of the corner after a long road that suffered a major speedbump five years ago. Ethiopia were suspended from the international game for a year between July 2008 and July 2009. FIFA ruled Ethiopia had not complied with the governing body's roadmap for development and threw them out.

It could not have happened at a worse time for the nation because back then, things were looking up for the Ethiopia. They had won back to back CECAFA Cups under Sewnet Bishaw, who also coaches them currently. The former sports and physical education teacher recently became the highest paid coach in Ethiopia's football history. His salary was increased to 30,000 Birr a month, which is the equivalent of £1,050 - it doesn't sound too much to the rest of the night but it goes a long way in his home country.

At the time, Bishaw said the burden of Ethiopia's illustrious past was "unfortunate" because it weighed the team down. He told "The country needs a strong economy, good attitude from the federation but our officials were fighting every year in the past. Now, the federation seems stable. Frankly, there was corruption. Now there is an understanding that football has become business and that everybody can benefit if the team does well."

Now that is being realised. The Ethiopian Business Review (EBR) this year published a lengthy piece on the corporatisation of the game thanks to the national team's ANC participation. Another striker, Adane Girma, who also plays for Saint George, said sponsorship of the scale of Heineken and MTN may not have been signed up if it wasn't for their success.

Clubs are starting to improve the amounts they pay to players although, as with most things that is done on an unequal basis. Dedebit FC are in the money and they are the team that has managed to secure big signings. The investments must be paying off because they lead the league table. Saint George, despite their continental success, only lie fifth.

The power shifting is one sign of progression and others are starting to make themselves visible too. When the EBR published its piece, they noted the Ethiopian FA did not have a website, which hindered their ability to transmit information. Since then, they have set one up and although it's not very up to date, proudly states the Ethiopian FA's aim as being to "become one of the best football federations on the continent," and to be "self-sustaining and profitable," among other things.

What their page does not contain is the details of their staff members, which speaks to one of the criticisms the EBR made of them - their lack of professional personnel. As a result, there is no monitoring of transfers, no documentation on their financial situation and no set plan for marketing.

All these things could improve the quality of the product; that is not to say it will help the standard of the game in Ethiopia, it will just enhance the experience of football in the country. In turn, that could attract more supporters, more money and more, better-paid players in the league.

As for the rest, it will be up to the footballers to continue to put the Ethiopian game on the map. For now, the national team's World Cup qualification campaign and Saint George's showing at continental level are doing that admirably for now.

CAF Confederation Cup draw

Group A:
Saint George
Stade Malien
Enugu Rangers
Etoile du Sahel
Group B:
ES Setif
TP Mazembe
FUS Rabat
CA Bizerten

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