The Walyas are just two matches away from clinching East Africa’s first-ever spot at a World Cup finals.
Arsenal coach Arsene WengerÃ‚Â challenged British reporters in January to name five members ofÃ‚Â Ethiopia’s squad ahead of their rare appearance at the AfricanÃ‚Â Cup of Nations in South Africa.
“It is maybe the only international competition today whereÃ‚Â you do not know all the players,” he said in London.
“This timeÃ‚Â in South Africa you will have Ethiopia – if I ask you to nameÃ‚Â five Ethiopian players, I am sure you will have a problem.”
Such was Ethiopia’s standing in world football – AfricanÃ‚Â giants turned perpetual strugglers who have slumped into theÃ‚Â footballing wilderness since winning the African Nations Cup inÃ‚Â 1962.
But the country more renowned for churning out some of theÃ‚Â world’s greatest long-distance runners is now making its mark onÃ‚Â African football as a force to be reckoned with.
Nine months after their first appearance at a Nations CupÃ‚Â since 1982, the Walyas – named after an antelope endemic to theÃ‚Â country – are just two matches away from clinching what would beÃ‚Â East Africa’s first-ever spot at a World Cup finals.
They face reigning African champions Nigeria in Addis AbabaÃ‚Â on Sunday in the first leg of the playoff round. The return legÃ‚Â is scheduled for mid-November.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw says his players, buoyed by theirÃ‚Â exploits at January’s tournament, are undaunted by the prospectÃ‚Â of facing their more illustrious opponents.
“We are in good shape. We will fight against Nigeria,” he saidÃ‚Â after a training session in the capital.
“The only thing we will do is give one hundred percentÃ‚Â effort. If you give that, why wouldn’t you have a one hundredÃ‚Â percent chance of qualifying? You are equal.”
Leading striker Saladin Seid, who scored four goals in theÃ‚Â group stage of qualifying, said Ethiopia were confident ofÃ‚Â beating the Green Eagles on home soil.
“We will win in Addis. The away leg won’t be easy but thatÃ‚Â will send us a long in securing our passage,” he said.
Seeded among the weakest teams and featuring a home-basedÃ‚Â starting lineup, the unfancied Walyas were drawn againstÃ‚Â then-holders Zambia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria in the 2013Ã‚Â Nations’ Cup.
They had goalkeeper Jemal Tassew sent off for a wild kung-fu style lunge in the first half of their opening match againstÃ‚Â Zambia, but still managed to earn a 1-1 draw.
Losses to Burkina Faso and Nigeria followed, but Ethiopia’s ‘tika-taka’ brand of passing game and movement drew praise fromÃ‚Â both the crowds and pundits alike.
“Parading a team of all home-based players Ethiopia remindedÃ‚Â me in so many ways of Barcelona of Spain. Yes they were thatÃ‚Â good,” said Sunday Oliseh, a former Nigeria captain who is now aÃ‚Â football analyst.
With just Egypt-based striker Saladin on the books of aÃ‚Â foreign club ahead of the tournament, the turnaround in fortuneÃ‚Â has also led to more players going on to ply their tradeÃ‚Â overseas.
From South Africa to Libya to Israel, the likes of strikerÃ‚Â Getaneh Kebede and midfielder Shemeles Bekele have been snappedÃ‚Â up by clubs in countries with more lucrative leagues.
“We earned recognition in South Africa but a World CupÃ‚Â appearance would put the spotlight on our players,” saidÃ‚Â Saladin, who has returned to Egyptian top flight side Wadi DeglaÃ‚Â after a stint in Belgium with Lierse.
Although they were docked three points for fielding aÃ‚Â suspended player, Ethiopia finished the group stages undefeatedÃ‚Â and Ethiopian soccer analysts say the team’s recent resurgenceÃ‚Â could herald a new era of sustained success.
“This is a golden generation whose players have belief inÃ‚Â themselves,” said Hussein Abdulkeni.
“There is a rhythm now thatÃ‚Â has boosted confidence, that international tournaments areÃ‚Â within Ethiopia’s reach.”
In the meantime, Ethiopian football fans are ecstatic aboutÃ‚Â their team’s achievements.
Throughout the capital’s streets, giant portraits of theÃ‚Â team are hang on high-rise buildings while state-owned channelsÃ‚Â air adverts in between regular programming, promoting theÃ‚Â eagerly-awaited ties as “180 minutes before history is made”.
Whether they make it to Brazil or not, Sewnet is satisfiedÃ‚Â with the state of the game in Ethiopia. Recent success has meantÃ‚Â more sponsors in the domestic league and higher salaries for theÃ‚Â players.
“Ethiopian football will continue to grow,” he said.