By Zecharias Zelalem
We are on the brink of yet another long, grueling, three year long campaign to have an Ethiopian football team reach the pinnacle of global football, the finals of the FIFA World Cup. Yes, time certainly does fly, it is hard to believe that the electric atmosphere which brimmed across the Walya fever struck nation during Coach Sewnet Bishaw‘s tenure as national team manager was all for a world cup tournament that ended last summer in Brazil. For a generation of young football fans, those days still feel like yesterday.
It’s time to accept that those days are now of an era gone by. Ethiopians, are a people whose culture it is to continuosly drink in and relive the nostalgia of better times. But after a year back in the footballing dumps, fans have been able to accept despite those glorious days, of only two or three years ago, the Ethiopian national team has indeed been shot back to earth.
The road to reach Russia 2018 will once again start at the preliminary round for the Walyas as it did four years ago. Coach Yohannes Sahle‘s charges will take on Sao Tome and Principe, a team ranked 193rd in the world. The Ethiopian national team have already arrived in Sao Tome, today they will hold a practice session at the Estádio Nacional 12 de Julho, before taking on their Sao Tome and Principe counterparts at the same venue in the first leg of the tie. The second leg will be played three days later at Addis Ababa stadium.
With a day to go before our world cup campaign kicks off, the mood among fans is rather moot and nervy. The headline going into tomorrow’s game is the players who won’t be featuring for Ethiopia.
Coach Yohannes Sahle shocked the Ethiopian sporting community by dropping the attacking trio of Getaneh Kebede, Salahdin Said and Omod Okori from the now 18 man national team roster. These three players are the best strikers Ethiopia has at her disposal and are also among the few Ethiopian professionals plying their trade outside of the country, with Getaneh recently signing for University of Pretoria in the South African Premiership, Salahdin joining Algerian outfit MC Alger in the off season and Omod, now a member of Egyptian side ENPPI. All three of them have fantastic strike rates with the national team, with the Walyas having constantly relied on the trio for goals. Dropping these three players has all of a sudden taken the firepower out of the national team, with the Walyas looking a lot less threatening on paper. Exactly, what pushed the gaffer to take such drastic action was the question on everybody’s mind. But just as we thought we would hear something a day ago, Coach Yohannes Sahle decided on his own that the customary pre flight press conference that a national team manager is supposed to attend in order to give the legions of fans a debriefing, wasn’t necessary. He skipped the presser and boarded the flight with his team, leaving everything up to speculation. All of a sudden, what seemed like a cakewalk of an opponent in Sao Tome and Principe, looked like a steep mountain climb without Ethiopia’s finest footballers.
A media representative always travels with the team, and with analyst Mequanenet Berhe of Radio Fana’s “Sport Zone” on board the team flight, Coach Yohannes knew he had to spill the beans sooner or later.
“I cut these players from the national team based on several factors. One is the fact that they underperformed during our last outing against Seychelles,” the former Dedebit coach told Mequanenet.
He’s referring to the 1-1 draw in 2017 AFCON qualifying action away to Seychelles a month ago. The result was a huge disappointment for the Walyas, who were expected to wallop the islander minnows. Despite talk all summer of a television deal with the Ethiopian national team and a broadcaster, nothing bore fruition of it, and the game wasn’t televised for the Ethiopian audience, with fans forced to follow that game on radio. Because of this, it is impossible to properly analyse what exactly went wrong that game and we have no choice but to take Coach Yohannes’ at his word.
The coach also added that the current form of the three players had taken a hit. Salahdin Said has been benched at MC Alger, while Getaneh Kebede has failed to score in three outings so far with University of Pretoria.
Dropping a player from the national team for his lack of club level appearances is the norm in football. But the problem is that Ethiopia aren’t spoiled for choice in the attacking department. The attacking trio of Dawit Fekadu, Ramkel Lok and Biruk Kalabore have a combined total of two international goals in something like twenty internationals. The latter two are rather inexperienced at the international level, with Ramkel Lok making his international debut only a year ago under Mariano Barreto and Biruk getting his only real run of games as a member of the 2013 CECAFA Cup squad. Dawit Fekadu meanwhile, despite being a Dedebit legend and the club’s highest scorer in international competition, only recently bagged his first international goal barely a week ago against Botswana. He had played in over a dozen internationals without scoring a single goal in the five years he’s spent as a member of the Ethiopian national team. And he’s never been played out of position, always at the forefront, spearheading the attack.
This is the forward line we have at our disposal heading into tomorrow’s preliminary round clash. No it doesn’t really spark belief in the Walyas. We will be lacking the cutting edge up front and Coach Yohannes has definitely made the task much more difficult than it was.
Of course, he’s the manager and he makes the decisions. He has already stated that he has a coaching philosophy and belief which he will remain loyal to. It is up to the nation to leave the job of coaching to the coach, after all.
But if that is so, then there are still meteor crate sized holes in his logic. The Ethiopian national team squad that took on Lesotho back in June at Bahr Dar Stadium to kick off the 2017 AFCON qualifying campaign, included Getaneh Kebede, despite the fact that he had not played a game in months for his then club Bidvest Wits. He was a starter against Lesotho, and after a poor showing, was hauled off. He then remains in the squad for the next AFCON qualifier, the draw with Lesotho a month ago, despite being released by his club. Now however, Getaneh’s fortunes have changed, and he has signed for a new club and is playing decent football despite his being yet to find the back of the net. And Coach decides to drop him from this latest squad for his lack of form? Why wasn’t he dropped months ago when he was a benchwarmer on the fringes at his club? Why would Coach Yohannes decide to drop a proven international goalscorer just weeks after he starts getting regular minutes again at club level? Wouldn’t this be the time to harness his newly earned playing time and transform it into stellar performances at international level? In the case of Getaneh Kebede, it does seem that Coach Yohannes has tweaked his philosophy quite a bit. It appears he cannot even act consistently in accordance to the regulations he has set for himself.
Okori Omod was among Ethiopia’s few consistent players during Ethiopia’s ultimately unsuccessful 2015 AFCON qualifying campaign last year. Fans will no doubt remember his slalom run across the pitch at Blida stadium which he ended with a rocket of a strike into the bottom corner to give Ethiopia the lead against Algeria. Four days later, in the final qualifier against Malawi at Addis Ababa stadium, Coach Mariano Barreto wanted to substitute the overplayed, exhausted and jet lagged Omod. “I looked towards the bench and realized there was nobody to replace him,” Barreto remembers. “I had no other players of his level.” Unfortunately for Walya fans, this still remains the case. Other than Salahdin and Getaneh, there are no other strikers of Omod Okori’s caliber and it would have been wise to keep the few who actually are, close to the national team setup.
Salahdin Said’s exclusion is nothing but sheer madness. The greatest Ethiopian striker of his generation, still at peak age, skipper of the side and talisman of Ethiopian football, is always an asset even before putting his incredible strike ratio of 13 international goals in 21 games into the equation. The man who scored the goal that booked Ethiopia her first AFCON appearance in 31 years has suffered injuries over the course of last season while at Egyptian champions Al Ahly. But the Asosa born Salahdin, who won the 2014 Egyptian Super Cup and 2014 CAF Confederations Cup trophies while at Al Ahly, is irreplaceable in the national team. Throughout his time as a member of the national team, he has always conducted himself professionally, never a source of ill discipline. It’s this demeanor that earned him the captain’s armband last year. And let’s not forget, it was his 78th minute finish that ensured Ethiopia defeated Lesotho 2-1 in June, a game where failure to secure all three points in front of a boisterous crowed of over 100,000 fans at Bahr Dar Stadium, could have put Coach Yohannes’ job on the line from the get go. “Sala” as he is affectionately known, is a figure capable of rallying the troops forward with his mere presence and it is unclear if Coach Yohannes took into account the impact on the players Sala’s absence would have.
If the exclusion of these three players was just wrong, the tom foolery surrounding the exclusion of another member of Ethiopia’s foreign contingent will leave you shocked and appalled.
Center back Walid Atta, now plying his trade for Turkish league side Gençlerbirliği, was originally named as a member of the Ethiopian setup to take on Sao Tome and Principe. The former Sweden youth international, is of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent, and made his debut for Ethiopia last year having since won four caps, the latest coming against Seychelles last month. During the international break, he had traveled to Sweden to visit his family, awaiting the Ethiopian football federation’s call for him to join up with the national team. As is procedure, Walid waited for the EFF to send a letter to his Turkish club confirming their intentions to line him up in Ethiopian colours.
But the letter never came, Walid says. “Since the EFF failed to notify my club side, I haven’t gotten clearance to play for Ethiopia and I will now be returning to Turkey.”
Walid Atta is the only Europe based professional in the Ethiopian national team. A decade of experience including UEFA Champions league appearances means that Walid would be a rock solid presence in the defense of a team like Ethiopia. He put on consistent displays and had become a fan favourite in his few outings during the doomed 2015 AFCON qualifying campaign.
But Walid is not in Sao Tome with the national team. He has already boarded a flight back to Turkey. Did the EFF bureaucracy’s shoddy workings cost us a skilled European professional?
When prodded by Mequanenet, Coach Yohannes sheepishly answered the question despite the EFF’s best efforts to keep this secret out of the fear of the inevitable public backlask.
“The Ethiopian Football Federation doesn’t have the funds to cover Walid’s air travel.”
You read correctly. Coach Yohannes clearly stated that the Ethiopian national team, supported by millions of die hard fans across the globe, backed by dozens of big name sponsors and a federal budget to boot, didn’t have the money to pay for a single player’s air ticket. The Ethiopian football federation, which had organized a telethon only a year ago, and had seen sellout crowds of over a hundred thousand fans turn up at Bahr Dar Stadium this summer to watch Ethiopia take on Lesotho and then Kenya, couldn’t fork out the money to pay for one man’s airfare. This is 2015. If this news makes international headlines, we will be the laughing stock of the continent. We aren’t talking about goal line technology being used in Ethiopian Premier League games. We are talking about the head of a football organisation representing 90 million people declaring that his organisation is short of a measly couple thousand euros needed to purchase a plane ticket.
Unbeknownst to Coach Yohannes, this revelation exposes the inept inner workings of the EFF. Because if the EFF is really this broke on money, it would mean that they have absolutely mismanaged the funds that were raked in from dealings with the likes of Walya beer and after some horrible investments, have been reduced to zilch. If this is truly the case, which I doubt it is, the EFF should introduce some cost cutting measures. Perhaps lower the number of staff traveling around with the squad and use the money that would normally be wasted booking their tickets to cover the travel expenses of our own players!
But the likely scenario is different. If indeed the EFF lacked the funds to purchase Walid Atta’s air ticket, it gives weight to longstanding allegations of corruption in the EFF. Exactly how does the EFF go from paying millions of birr to send the national team on a weeks long tour of Brazil in 2014 to being unable to cover a single player’s travel costs in 2015? How is it possible that the EFF, whose representatives fly first class across the continent to attend CAF galas or tournament bidding draws, become virtually penniless? An organisation lacking transparency and clarity like the EFF is always more likely to be accused of fraud and admitting that they have probably binged the money they would normally have spent for a player’s airfare is Coach Yohannes’ way of firing a round into the shoe of the hapless Junedine Besha. A man whose reign as EFF President has been overshadowed by the organisation’s and his own complete incompetence.
Whatever it is, without Walid at the heart of the back four, Ethiopia is certainly lighter in defense. His regular defensive partner Salahdin Bargecho is also not included. He had left the national team training camp, lured by his former national team coach Mariano Barreto by the promise that he would sign for a club in Portugal. If Barreto didn’t do enough to ruin Ethiopian football while he was under contract as a coach, he is now doing what he can to further destabilize the team as an outside influence. Salahdin failed to sign for any Portuguese club during his trials in Portugal and has since returned to Addis and signed an extension contract with Saint George.
So there you have it. Due to some incredulous judgement, and a bombshell of a bureaucratic blunder, the Ethiopian national team has arrived in Sao Tome and Principe, without four key players. It is most definitely not the most convincing of national team setups we have had in recent years.
Be that as it may, we will still get to look at some mighty fine players get their well deserved time in the spotlight. Dedebit goalkeeper Tariku Getnet was a member of the Dedebit C academy team at the start of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. He has since climbed the ranks at the club and is arguably the best goalkeeper to come out of the country in recent years, not an endearing compliment when one takes into consideration the tendency of Ethiopian national team keepers to be highly error prone. For the first time in years, neither Sisay Bancha nor Jemal Tassew are included in the squad. Tariku seems to have solidified his position as number one goalkeeper for years to come. He kept two clean sheets against Kenya, in 2016 CHAN qualifying action, notably saving a penalty in the first game to ensure Ethiopia came out 2-0 winners.
Aschalew Tamene, Saint George’s newest signing, will most likely start in lieu of Walid Atta. With Walid Atta temporarily gone, Salahdin Bargecho out of national team selection indefinitely and Thok James’ progress as a footballer stumped, the former Dedebit man has another golden chance to grab by the horns and make his case for why he should be a regular starter. Having made his international debut this year against Lesotho, he took his chance and exhibited a calm, cool and collected presence during Ethiopia’s games against Kenya and his debut against Lesotho.
And then there is Ethiopia Buna’s Gatoch Panom. Perhaps the best national team performer of 2015 so far, Gatoch has been in and out of the national team since making his debut in 2012. But with two international goals and some excellent displays from his holding midfielder role, he’s likely to become one of the national team’s stars for years to come.
Bereket Yishak is like Gatoch, a young prodigy who was destined for big things at a young age. His performances at EEPCO Electric garnered him praise and earned him his first international call up to Sewnet Bishaw’s national squad which took part at the 2013 CECAFA Cup. A relocation to Dedebit saw him struggle to adjust to the higher standards, but after some time in the international wilderness, he is back and will be hoping to do his chances of regular international football some good with a decent showing against half baked opposition.
The only foreign based player in the squad is Shemeles Bekele. And the Walyas will be hoping that he will step up and show his usual A game credentials, the ones that had him starring as one of the best players in the Egyptian Premier League last season while at Petrojet. The team will be captained by fullback Seyoum Tesfaye.
Goalkeepers: Tariku Getnet, Abel Mamo, Lealem Birhanu.
Defensemen: Seyoum Tesfaye, Tekalign Dejene, Aschalew Tamene, Mujib Kassim, Anteneh Tesfaye.
Strikers: Ramkel Lok, Dawit Fekadu, Biruk Kalabore.
This is the first world cup qualifying campaign without the likes of long serving stalwarts Adane Girma, Degu Debebe, Aynalem Haile and Birhanu Bogale in the ranks of the national team, so let’s thank these servants of Ethiopian football for their efforts and hope that the current setup, no matter how light weight it may appear in comparison, can surpass the achievements of their predecessors.
Mingizem Walya Walya Walya
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