By Samuel Yeshiwas 

The Walya Antelopes will be celebrating a return to the biggest continental showpiece after a 31 year absence. Ethiopia, who last qualified for the Nations cup in 1982, has started preparation for the 2013 AFCON to be held from January 19 in South Africa. A total of 31 players are currently in camp at the Addis Intercontinental Hotel.

The football federation has been planning extensive activities to take advantage of the football awakening in the country that came as a baggage of the qualification. The federation has budgeted a whopping 80 million birr ($4.44 million) for the campaign. It has recently signed a two-year sponsorship agreement with Bedele Beer, which is one of the two breweries in Ethiopia that are run by Heineken. The deal will see the federation receiving a sum of 24 million birr through the course of the agreement.

The Walya Antelopes are out to improve their disappointing showing when they last took place at the tournament in 1982. At their last appearance in Libya, they finished last from their group with only one point. They lost 3-0 to Nigeria. They were then beaten by Zambia 1-0, which was followed by a goalless draw with Algeria.

Ironically, Ethiopia is grouped with its last group opponents, Zambia and Nigeria. The group which is completed by Burkina Faso is expected to be an uphill battle for the Ethiopians. Even though many football analyst equate Ethiopia progressing from the group which includes the defending champions Zambia and African football giants Nigeria with mission impossible, Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw dares to believe otherwise. In a recent interview with Aljazeera, he was quoted as saying “We won’t go to South Africa to be defeated.” In this interview, Sewnet was adamant his side are not in the 2013 African Cup of Nations for the first time in 31 years just to make up the numbers.

The coach is relying on the professional experiences of his foreign based players for the upcoming challenges. Most of the players in the Ethiopian squad are home based and playing for the Ethiopian league champions St. George FC and the runners up Dedebit FC. But coach Sewnet is trying to include some foreign based players to his charges. Among them are the five players who have already joined camp.

1.Yusuf Saleh:plays for Syrianska in the Allsvenskan which is the premier football competition of Sweden. He previously won the Allsvenskan with AIK in 2009. He plays as a left winger and was included in the shadow squad that took part in the 2012 CECAFA in Uganda. Having impressed the coach, he was called to join camp and will be hoping to make the final cut.

2.David Beshah: The defensive midfielder plays for TSC Euskirchen in the German lower division and recently joined Sewnet’s name list.

3.Abdusalam Abas “Fuad” Ibrahim: The 21 year old forward has a lot of experience for his age having played for the United States U-17 and U-20 and for FC Dallas and Toronto FC in the MLS. He has scored 12 goals for the USA at the youth level. He currently plays for Minnesota FC in the North American Super League.

4.Abdul Wali Aman: Another US based player, not much is known about this player except that he is a striker and plays for Washington University in Seattle.

5.Khalid Mesfin-Mulugeta: The 20 year old Left-Back plays for Hannover 96 II and features at number 307 in the list of world’s 2000 best youth players. It is expected that he will face stiff competition from the talented home based players for the position.

Egypt based striker Saladin Said is arguably the country’s best player. He has scored six goals in the last four subsequent matches he played for Ethiopia, a goal scoring prowess that has the likes of Zambia Coach Herve Renard worried. He is currently on tour in Belgium with his club and will join the National team 10 days before the tournament per FIFA guidelines.

There has been some variance about the exclusion of globetrotter Fikru Tefera from the preliminary squad. Having played in Africa, Europe, and Asia, many believe that he would have brought a wide array of experience to the young team. The 26 year old striker reportedly left for South Africa to sign a contract with ABSA premiership side Free State Town after hearing the decision to leave him out of the team.

As preparations intensify and the date of the tournament closes in, one has to wonder if Ethiopia has what it takes to make an impressive showing at AFCON 2013, because some 85 million Ethiopians will be hoping for the same.

Please visit Samuel’s Blog here.

Some info about Abdul: