By Zecharias Zelalem
In what was a drawn out weeks long saga over the contract extension of Ethiopian Coffee FC or “Buna” captain and best player Gathuoch Panom Yiech, the player finally agreed to a deal extending his stay at the club, with minutes to go before the Ethiopian transfer window would be shut. Unlike in some European countries, a free agent’s contract cannot be extended outside of the transfer period. In a tale that had dramatic twists and turns, with the player writing a farewell letter to fans and the club going great lengths to try to break ties between player and agent, league regulations almost prevented the deal from being ratified at the very end. But last night, Buna fans rested easier after fears that he would leave the team in the middle of the season were once and for all put to bed.
Just how key is Gathuoch Panom to Ethiopian Coffee aspirations?
Don’t be fooled by his squad number 27. He is far from being a bit role player bordering on becoming surplus to requirements. At Buna, Gathuoch Panom rose through the ranks to become the missing piece in the midfield arsenal that was lacking after several key members of Buna’s 2011-12 Ethiopian Premier League winning side one by one vacated the club in the years following their unforgettable league triumph. After their winning the league title, Minyahile Teshome’s perceived underhanded transfer dealing saw him become loathed by the fans for his leaving Buna first for Dedebit before settling at league rivals St. George. Despite club icon Dawit Estifanos also leaving after having become a liability with his off field conduct and reported falling out with team authorities, Gathuoch Panom has done arguably well to fill the gap. He has since become the team’s midfield general, ushering play forward and stamping his authority in the midfield, all the while contributing with goals and assists, made easier by his killer efficiency from set pieces. Ageing veterans such as long serving stalwart Mesoud Mohammed have long given way for the Gambella born midfielder to exercise his leadership. This season, his six goals from midfield have him tied for sixth place among the league’s top strikers in the goal scoring department.
However, as of April 4th 2017, Gathuoch Panom would have no longer been bound to the club. The expiry of his contract in the middle of the season was looming large, but after months of stalling by the club led to botched negotiations over the past ten days or so between club and player, it took until the very tail end of the transfer window to agree to a contract extension and the Ethiopian international was reportedly half an hour away from ending a six year association with the club.
On Wednesday, Gathuoch released a two page letter, a departure message for Ethiopian Coffee fans thanking them for all the love and support they have shown him throughout his time in Addis Ababa.
The burning issue is the fact that Gathuoch has received multiple offers from Europe and is almost guaranteed to be playing overseas next season, according to his agent, former Buna fullback and Ethiopian international David Beshah. The agent didn’t name the club which had tabled an offer for Gathuoch, but sources at Ethiopian football news website Soccer Ethiopia state that the unnamed side is a Greek club.
On Wednesday when he spoke to Ethiosports.com, David was somewhat pessimistic but didn’t completely rule out the possibility of coming to terms with Buna on a short term contract that would see Gathuoch play out the remainder of the present campaign.
“Right now we have a pre-contract offer on the table for Gathuoch and are expecting another two!” David told us. “Unfortunately we still in negotiation for a contract extension till the end of the season with Buna. We still hope to find a solution. It’s not even about the money.”
Indeed the issue isn’t money. An inexplicable bureaucratic decision resulted in Buna signing Gathuoch to a lengthy multiyear contract that is slated to expire mid season. The player has reportedly reiterated his undying love for the club and let the management know that he would love to sign a short term deal to play until the end of the present campaign, which for Ethiopian Coffee, constitutes another eleven league matches. At the end of the season and the end of his short term deal, he would take up one of the offers on the table for him and depart for Europe.
But the club management have remained stoic in their demands for a contract extension. According to Gathuoch’s agent, the club offered a two year extension to Gathuoch s expiring contract, meaning that the player would remain under contract at Buna beyond next season, despite there being multiple offers to seal a dream to European league football. Gathuoch and his agent balked at that offer. They say with Europe knocking on their door, it would be pointless to sign anything that went beyond this season.
David Beshah says that knowing Gathuoch’s contract would end midseason, he has been trying to set up contract extension negotiations for his client since November of last year, but had been rebuffed by the club all this time. It appears that Buna had decided to bide their time.
“I’ve been trying to extend his contract since last year. I reached out to Buna management and tried to reason with them. I requested that we either extend the existing contract for another season and a half with a clause that would allow him to leave if a foreign club makes an offer, or that we at least agree to extend it to the end of the season so the player can focus on the current campaign. They refused to even consider.”
But upon their coming within earshot of rumours of a reported transfer to Europe, they decided to throw together some hastily drawn up paperwork, according to David.
“Since the rumours about Europe began to fly, the club management suddenly offered a lengthy two year plus three months with the above mentioned clause. But we are now in possession of a European pre-contract for next season, so we aren’t interested in negotiating a long term stay in Ethiopia.”
Ethiopian Coffee FC doesn’t appear to be opposed to Gathouch’s signing for a European club. It isn’t clear what has irked them, so Ethiosports.com sought to hear the club’s version of events. However we haven’t received any responses from the club’s public relations head despite repeated attempts to contact him.
The club has thus far refrained from making any public statements on the affair. But it seems that a lack of assurances over a move to Europe may have been at the heart of their fears. If a planned move to Europe doesn’t materialize, it could leave Gathuoch as a free agent ahead of next season in search of a new home. A disastrous scenario for the club would be the likes of arch rivals St. George or Dedebit swooping in for his signature ahead of next season. Hence the desire to seal his rights for another two years at least.
The Gathuoch camp has done all it can to assure the club the player has no intentions of playing for any other club side in Ethiopia.
“Yes they may be afraid he could join another Ethiopian team, but this won’t happen.” David told us. “If for whatever reason the European deals fail to work, the first team he will contact is Coffee.”
Soccer Ethiopia executive editor Omna Taddele agrees. “He’s not interested in playing for other Ethiopian sides. He has repeatedly echoed this through his agent.” On Tuesday, Omna tweeted that among the teams to have shown an interest in Gathuoch’s signature, are clubs in Israel, Belarus and Moldova.
The verbal assurances may not be sufficient for those high up the Buna hierarchy. Ethiopian Coffee fans will recall one of the club’s most beloved players, Ashenafi Girma being unable to resist the allure of a move to St. George. During the 2003-04 campaign, fullback Debrom Hagos provoked the ire of Buna fans when he also left Buna to join the cross town rivals and later scored for St. George against his former Buna teammates that same season in a nail biting encounter that saw St. George win the title on the last day of the season. In recent times, Fasika Asfaw made the same move in the aftermath of an alleged spat with the club’s then captain Dawit Estifanos, although his time at St George was short lived and is considered a failure.
Besides this, football is a capitalist business, players do tend to chase to heavier paychecks. In Ethiopia, where a career defining move can be the difference between loitering at club headquarters after practice and waiting to hitch a ride via official club transportation or driving home in a purchased vehicle to a newly built villa, it is hard to blame some want away players. Perhaps Buna knowing this reality all too well, were keen on terminating any possibility of seeing Gathuoch Panom at Addis Ababa Stadium clad in a “V” striped orange and yellow jersey next season.
Whatever the case, negotiations had picked up over the course of the last week with the contract expiration date drawing perilously closer, but in vain. The club have reportedly refused to back down on their demand he sign a two year contract at the very least, if he hoped to remain a part of the squad this season.
In his letter to fans released on his Facebook page, Gathuoch outlined the areas of dispute and tried to clarify some of the bizarre circumstances of his current contract. “Among the things the club should answer for, why did the club hierarchy sign me to a contract that runs out before the season is over?” Gathuoch wrote. “I never asked for my contract to end with nearly half the season left to play!”
“How did the club fail to realize that my leaving in the middle of the season would be harmful for both the club and me as a player?”
“Despite the fact that my agent continuously wrote to the board indicating an interest to discuss my contract situation, members of the board tried to cut my agent out of the discussion and address me personally. Every professional player has the right to have a legal representative. The club confronting me directly while taking measures to avoid talking to my agent was additional strain on me as I wouldn’t be able to focus solely on giving my best on the pitch.”
This part of the letter came as a surprise. One would assume that the board at Ethiopian Coffee FC headquarters would have taken a liking to David Beshah. David did after all, cut short his playing career in Germany to suit up in Buna’s magenta colours for three seasons, before a reoccurring knee injury forced him to retire aged only 27 in 2015. Since retiring, he started his own player agency Beshah Football Consulting (BFC). BFC represents a number of high profile Ethiopia based players, and agreed to become the player representative of David’s close friend and former teammate Gathuoch Panom sometime in June of 2016. As a player though, David too was a Buna favourite, which makes it all the more puzzling that he would be treated like an obstacle to the deal by the club.
Gathuoch Panom is perhaps one of the most promising players to have come out of Ethiopia in recent years. The 22 year old was made a member of the club after being scouted as a 16 year old by Seyoum Abate, a man with a legendary eye for youth talent. Gathuoch is a product of the Ethiopian Coffee’s youth development project, starring as a member of the team’s B and C teams before being included in the first team at the start of the 2012-13 season. In his first season at the club, he looked like a seasoned pro, no shades of an inexperienced newcomer in his game. Barely months into the season, he had made such an impression that he was called into the national team and made his international debut in November of 2012 in a CECAFA Cup game against South Sudan. Throughout Ethiopia’s dismal showing at the tournament, (three losses in four matches) Gathuoch put in mature, decent performances and managed to outshine some of the more established members of that squad, including Fikru Tefera Lemessa. He was seen as too young and inexperienced for the big stage and wasn’t called up for Ethiopia’s 2013 AFCON squad two months later. After Sewnet Bishaw’s dismissal, he was inexplicable refused a chance to show his abilities with the Walyas by Sewnet’s replacement, Portuguese manager Mariano Barreto. But the appointment of Yohannes Sahle saw the Ethiopian-American coach make Gathuoch the lynchpin of his squads. Throughout 2015, Gathuoch established himself as one of Ethiopia’s most effective players, managing to score six goals for the national team that year, more than anyone else, despite being a midfielder. Among his goals, a stunning long distance strike against Lesotho in AFCON qualifying that sent a crowd of over a hundred thousand fans at Bahir Dar Stadium into frenzy. He later captained the national team to a third place finish at the 2015 CECAFA Cup hosted by Ethiopia. Having amassed thirty international caps to his name, he continued putting in consistent performances at club level. In what was thought to be his penultimate game for the club barely ten days ago now, he scored two goals to lead Buna to a 4-1 victory over Fasil Kenema at the Fasiledes Stadium in Gonder.
“For all the love and support you have given me,” wrote Gathuoch addressing the fans, “I will thankful until the end of my days. I hope to one day return to play in a Buna shirt. I will still do whatever possible to support this team and help it remain a winning one.”
In the immediate aftermath of Gathuoch’s releasing a departure message, fans were left perplexed. Some blamed the club hierarchy. Others laid the blame at the feet of his agent. A number of threatening messages targeting David Beshah were posted to Facebook by Buna fans. Still, the club released no statements leaving everything open to speculation.
Meanwhile, David Beshah sat in his car charging his phone, waiting as the clock ticked away, perilously closer to the closing of the transfer window, which would be at 5pm local time and not midnight like in the rest of the world.
“It isn’t over yet, they still have an hour and twenty minutes to call me!” the player’s agent decided to wait it out.
He finally got the call and drove across town to meet up with Buna representatives. The club had given in to his demands. They settled on signing a three month contract which was signed with about a half hour to go before the closure of the window.
But then, a roadblock. The Ethiopian Football Federation wouldn’t ratify the extension. The deal was in violation of the EFF’s rules and regulations surrounding transfers and player contracts. Article 13.4.5 states that a player’s contract cannot be less than a year, nor longer than five years. Would the deal collapse at the death?
A couple of hours of negotiations with EFF officials and a deal was struck: the contract would last a year, but Gathuoch wouldn’t be restricted to any obligations, he could leave whenever he felt the need to without any expenses incurred. Team, player and federation had settled it, well after the window had closed, yet since the document was originally signed at 4:30pm, the EFF put a stamp on it.
Gathuoch Panom remains a member of Ethiopian Coffee FC.
In the end, the deal is strikingly similar to what David Beshah had proposed the club months ago. A lot of time appears to have been wasted only to agree with what had been offered back at square one. Nevertheless, fans are happy and Gathuoch is pleased.
“Done deal,” said his agent as he posted a picture of Gathuoch signing the debated contract to his Facebook page captioned, “last minute contract extension!”
While all this was going on, Ethiopian Coffee were playing Arbaminch at Addis Ababa Stadium, in the semi final tie of the Grand Renaissance Dam Cup competition. The game ended 3-0 for Buna, who will play in the final this Saturday against Adama Kenema. According to David Beshah, upon the completion of the legalities, Gathuoch went to Addis Ababa Stadium. After the game he entered the pitch to greet his victorious teammates with the news that he would be staying with them. Fans meanwhile had already gotten word of his staying thanks to social media. They were delighted to see him and he was given a standing ovation.
A day later, the Ethiopian Coffee website has no information on the deal, although the website project appears to have been abandoned, with last year’s squad list and last season’s premier league standings showing that nothing has been updated for over a year. The club’s Facebook page has released news of the deal, although no word from anyone at the board.
Despite it being a four team friendly tournament unaffiliated to the federation’s official competitions, tomorrow in the Grand Renaissance Dam cup final against Adama Gathuoch Panom and Ethiopian Coffee FC have the chance to celebrate a title. With Gathuoch in the ranks, the task is made much easier. The team and its fans can now fully focus on the game without the distraction of behind the scenes contract wrangling.
Zecharias Zelalem is a regular contributor of Ethiosports.com