“Winning titles isn’t our top priority, SURVIVAL is” declares Buna chairman

Ethiopian Coffee FC
                                                                    Ethiopian Coffee FC


Ethiopian Coffee Football Club has seen better days. The team with arguably the largest fan base in the country seems to be unable to pull itself from the downward spiral it finds itself in. Currently in eleventh place, the maroon clad setup has spent most of the current campaign languishing in the bottom half of the Ethiopian Premier League table. Coach Dragan Popadic is under fire at the club, as the first foreign coach in the team’s history is seen as responsible for a poor run of results which has seen the team’s title challenge end prematurely. As if to add insult to injury, in a 1-0 loss away to Hawassa Kenema about a month ago, hundreds of Ethiopian Coffee club supporters were the target of police batons at Hawassa Stadium, while allegedly simultaneously being pelted with rocks by rowdy hooligans outside of the stadium.

Coach Dragan Popadic is in hot seat
Coach Dragan Popadic is in hot seat

With the poor on field results, and unanswered questions surrounding the violence at Hawassa Stadium, the club establishment called for a general assembly at the club’s headquarters in Addis Ababa mid February whilst the club was in one of its worst on field ruts this season.

On February 14th, at a meeting of the association of supporter groups, club chairman Lieutenant Fekade Mamo, hounded by questions from supporter group representatives and concerned individuals, delivered what many fans have described as a spirit crushing statement.

“Our main priority is no longer winning the title,” the Lieutenant said. “Our primary and realistic concern is ensuring our survival in the Premier League.”

The statement send shock waves across the room, and later among the entire fan base when word of the chairman’s shooting of the fans back to earth got out and made its way to the radio waves.

For Ethiopian Coffee fans who are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the team’s founding this season, it’s a world away from where they were in recent years. It now seems like an eternity ago, but in what was perhaps one of the most glorious chapters in the club’s history, Buna conquered the Premier League crown back in the 2010-11 season, capping off a fine season with an unforgettable 2-0 final round victory over Mugher Cement. This suggested that there might be a shift of power among Ethiopia’s footballing elite as St George’s traditional strangle hold on local competition appeared to be waning. Just last season, Buna spent most of the first half of the season jockeying for top spot after victories over arch rivals Saint George and Dedebit. Then Coach Tilahun Mengesha told reporters that seeing Ethiopian Coffee return to African continental football was his main objective. But their title challenge later faltered and they would finish 6th and way out of reach of the continental cup spots. Coach Tilahun was dismissed from his post ahead of the season’s end, and his assistant, Anwar Yassin took over in the interim.

Lieutenant Fekade Mamo’s statements of intent are a far cry from the Buna that most of the fans know and love. For the club chairman to go out and tell fans that the leadership of their beloved club no longer has their eye on the top prize is considered sacrilege by many. We are barely half way through the season (due in no small part to the league repeatedly being halted for national team camp call-ups) and already a club considered to be among the best in the country has thrown in the towel and given up.

Lieutenant Fekade Mamo (center)
                                                                      Lieutenant Fekade Mamo (center)

The issue of the violence surrounding the February 7th Premier League game at Hawassa Stadium wasn’t properly addressed by the Buna board despite apparent evidence that police were partly at fault for the fracas. The clampdown on fans resulted in a pitch invasion and the game being interrupted for over half an hour. Images of hundreds of Buna jersey wearing fans being chased by dozens of baton swinging police officers were shared all over social media by Ethiopian football fans. It was yet another incident of crowd violence in Ethiopian football that got way out of hand. And for the umpteenth time, the victims in the cross hairs were fans of Ethiopian Coffee.

But in the two weeks or so since the Hawassa incident, there have been no reports of Lieutenant Fekade Mamo or anyone at the club filing a complaint with the league or any form of government authority. No action whatsoever was taken by the club to protest the beatings of hundreds of its own travelling fans. Other than the usual words of condemnation from the social media masses, the stadium security officials have gotten off scot-free. A tap on the wrist for the police and a slap to the face for Ethiopian Coffee fans who made the trip down south. Despite the club’s fans going to great lengths all year wearing the colours in support of the team even during the current rut it finds itself in, club authorities have also sent a signal that it won’t take any meaningful action to defend their honour, even when their safety and security are put at risk.

Not the case, says the club’s public relations head. Speaking to Ethiosports by phone, Mulugeta Desalegn, explains that the club is taking decisive action to prevent such incidents from reoccurring.

“At the fans meeting, we had representatives of the police with us. We are working alongside them to tackle the problem. We have already created a division of fans whose specific job is to keep order among our faithful during games. We are cooperating with the police and are determined to ensure such incidents don’t happen again in the future,” says Mulugeta. He explains that the allegations that Coffee fans start to riot when their team is on the verge of losing are totally false.  

“After the Hossana cup game, we met Sidama Coffee at home barely a week ago. We were defeated in that game, but thanks to the measures we have taken and our coordination with the fans, there were no incidents of violence or rioting.”

“I traveled with the team to Dire Dawa (for their February 23rd away game against Dire Dawa), and our travelling fans encountered no trouble. In fact the local fans in Dire Dawa showered us with gifts and made our stay enjoyable. No incidents of hooliganism whatsoever. Our methods are working,” explained Buna’s PR man.

Barely days later, the club indeed did fall to a second consecutive league defeat, losing 2-1 to Sidama Coffee. This was only a week after struggling to scrape past last place Hossana City in a penalty shootout in cup action. Their last league game a couple of Tuesdays ago saw Buna concede a goal in stoppage time to fall to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Wolayta Dicha in Boditi.  This seems like a horrendous run of results for a title contender, but now that Lieutenant Fekade has clarified things and declared that his team are fighting only to remain premier league next season, all is apparently well as the club are currently two points clear of the drop zone.

 During that game against Dire Dawa a couple of weeks ago now which ended in a 1-1 draw against the recently promoted side, a familiar face was there to haunt his former team. Ethiopian Coffee club icon and former captain Dawit Estifanos left the club last season after falling out with officials. He is among a host of key players who left the club in off season including Aschalew Girma and the club’s top scorer last season Binyam Assefa. Ample replacements haven’t been brought in by the club. Cameroonian striker William Yabeun was brought in, he managed to score Buna’s only goal against Dire Dawa. The signing of national team full back Abdulkerim Mohammed was also described as a coup, especially if he can remain fit. But the squad of 2016 is still arguably much weaker than that of 2015. Dragan Popadic is being harangued for being unable to bring the best out of the current crop of players, but it may also highlight management frailties from higher up the hierarchy.

Another player who left the club last season, Beninois striker Abikoye Shakiru had some harsh words for the club’s management.

“The club management at Ethiopian Buna aren’t worthy of managing such a team and know nothing about football,” Shakiru recently told the Ethio Addis Sport website.

Shakiru’s words may be from a player still sour over his being released after his poor performances in which he scored only two goals for Buna throughout the entire 2014-15 campaign. But perhaps now his sentiments might be echoed among players and fans after the recent developments. Especially an open declaration from the chairman stating that fans should aim much lower and stop dreaming of glory. This could prove harmful in the long term.

For one thing, Ethiopian Coffee’s fan base and success was due to its ability to attract big name stars and national team talent. Traditionally known for their mesmerizing passing football, their attractive play and ambition meant that countless aspiring footballers dreamt of wearing the club’s yellow and burgundy colours. But young aspiring footballers want to dream big, aim high and go far in their careers. They will not want to remain rooted to the ground. Buna are going to experience some difficulty in luring players to a less ambitious club with no serious title contention hopes. Champions league football for instance, has seen the likes of local talents Shemelis Bekele, Omod Okori and Abebaw Butako earn high paying moves abroad. If the club chairman has practically ruled his team out of contention for champions league spots, he will not be able to prevent his key players from flocking elsewhere for opportunities to play at a higher level.

A drop in the caliber of play can lead to the once blossoming fan base dropping in numbers due to frustration with the direction the team is heading in. It would be extremely naive of the board to believe that they can count on the utmost loyalty of the supporters no matter how many blunders they commit while at the helm of the club. The fact that the board believes mass beatings of Ethiopian Coffee fans isn’t worthy of a murmur of discontent anymore, could prove catalyst to inspiring a revolt of fans against the team’s owners.

In such a downward spiral it would be unimaginable that Buna would have sponsors knocking at its door the way they have had for a while now. Habesha Beer have signed what is reportedly the biggest club to company contract in the history of Ethiopian football with the club. With all this money invested into the club, sponsors will want a say in the decision making process. A businessman would surely be less than content to learn that his investment is in vain. While it’s highly unlikely that Habesha Beer will cut their losses and pull out of their current deal, they might hesitate to spend more on the club upon realization that the team leadership has selected to remain in the comfort zone of the Ethiopian Premier League mid table.

It’s quite obvious, a defeatist mentality has slowly but surely seeped into the club headquarters.

Things are not sailing smoothly at Coffee central.

Note: Zecharias Zelalem, who uses the pen name Zecharias Etyopia, is a Montreal (Canada)-based contributor to Ethiosports.com. He can be reached via his Facebook page.