Addis Ababa: Today the 2012 African Cup of Nations kicks off, and for the umpteenth time in a row, Ethiopia hasn’t qualified. But on this day exactly 50 years ago, we not only qualified, but took the trophy.
January 21st 1962, was the greatest day in Ethiopian football history. Our national team won it’s only major trophy in history. The 3rd African Cup of Nations in 1962 was hosted in Ethiopia. After a 12 team qualification, the 1-week long 4 teams tournament kicked off at Addis Ababa Stadium on January 14th 1962.
The 4 teams would play 2 semi finals, a third place playoff and the final. Ethiopia faced Tunisia, while Egypt the defending champions were paired with Uganda. Ethiopia and Egypt won their matches and made it to the final.
Previous years Egypt had defeated Ethiopia 4-0 in the final to claim the 1957 title. This time however, playing at the high altitude Haile Selassie Stadium (Now just called Addis Ababa Stadium) the Ethiopians were a skilled bunch and hungry for silverware. 25,000 fans filled the stadium and it would be worth it. One of the most entertaining games to ever be played in African football history took place.
Egypt took the lead in the 35th minute through Abdelfattah Badawi to silence the Ethiopian crowd. The Ethiopians coached by St George legend Yidnekatchew Tessema pushed on, and grabbed an equalizer in the 74th by Girma Tekle. But seconds later Badawi struck again for Egypt and made it 2-1, and they looked on route to a 3rd straight African title before anyone else had even one.
Cue the greatest Ethiopian footballer in history, Mengistu Worku. speed heading ability and scintillating skill made him a top prospect of many foreign teams but he refused to leave St George. The number 8 forward saved his team in the 85th minute. Jumping up to a corner and beat the advancing Egyptian goalkeeper to head home the equalizer. As a result the keeper unknowingly missed the ball and punched Mengistu square in the left eye. But as the great recalled decades later, “my father died defending my country, so I had no problems taking a black eye for Ethiopia!”
(His father, Fitawrari Worku fought the Italians in the 1935-1941 invasion and was killed while Mengistu was a child).
90 minutes are up. The score is 2-2. Extra time is added. The tension in Addis Ababa was unbearable. But the Ethiopians capitalized on an Egyptian defensive error in the 101st minute and Italo Vassalo scored to make it 3-2 and give Ethiopia the lead for the first time. And in the 117th minute, Mengistu Worku famously dribbled past 4 Egyptian players and scored Maradona style to make it 4-2 for the home side.
Final whistle, Ethiopia 4 Egypt 2. Ethiopia were champions of Africa as well as the first Black Champions, as Egypt had won the previous two titles. Ethiopians celebrated as if they had won the World Cup. Emperor Haile Selassie handed the trophy to Ethiopia’s captain the legendary Luciano Vassalo. And the team celebrated into the night as you can see in the image.
This was the greatest team in Ethiopian history. Sadly, since the team was seen as having an affiliation to the monarchy, after the Derg revolution many of them were abandoned by the federation and died penniless.
Others like Mengistu Worku who scored two goals that night 50 years ago, coached teams in Ethiopia after his career then toured the world visiting Ethiopian football communities in Europe and America. He passed away last year after battling cancer at age 70.
Italo Vassalo who scored the winning goal for Ethiopia was deported in 1998 from Ethiopia alongside thousands of other Eritreans during the Badme war. He currently coaches a team in the Eritrean Premier League.
The captain Luciano Vassalo, (older brother of Italo) currently lives in Rome, where he spends time with family and friends including one of his best friends Cesare Maldini (father of a certain AC Milan star).
Yidnekatchew Tessema, the Greatest Ethiopian football Manager in history who guided us to that victory, went on to become President of the African Football Confederation (CAF) as well as Ethiopian Olympic Committee head. He died in 1987 aged 66.
Starting 11 1962 African Cup of Nations Final – January 21st 1962
Gila-Michael Tekle Mariam (GK)
Luciano Vassallo (C)
Manager: Yidnekatchew Tessema
Trainer: Tsehaye Bahre.
Author: Zecharias Etyopia