By Zecharias Zelalem
The hotly contested spectacle that was the 2017 African Cup of Nations ended a month and a half ago. Players, delegations and diplomats from the sixteen participating nations closed their camps and flew out of Gabon and many players haven’t skipped a bit, returning to their club sides and an unrelenting European midseason. The champions Cameroon, fully recovered from the effects of excessive yet deserved celebrations, prepare for an upcoming friendly with Tunisia. For the over thirty other African national sides who failed to reach Gabon 2017, the focus is on ensuring they don’t miss out challenging the newly crowned champion’s defense of their title on home soil in 2019.
For the likes of East African upstarts Ethiopia, among the thirty or so African sides to miss out on Gabon 2017, failure to qualify was seen as simply the resumption of the decades old slump that saw them fail to make an appearance at a major international tournament until 2013. The absence of Ethiopians at the showpiece event was much easier to process, compared to that of the Nigerians, champions only four years ago.
But there are Ethiopians who don’t feel like this should be the norm. There are some who feel a little bit of elbow grease can significantly alter the direction the country’s football is heading in. One such Ethiopian was in Gabon throughout the AFCON and was a member of the 2017 AFCON event coordination team, ensuring that the tournament ran smoothly from start to finish.
Meskerem Tadesse spent the month of January ushering teams and referees to their hotels, accompanying federations officials and diplomats from the airport, and running back and forth from behind the scenes as part of the unheralded staff of CAF officials shouldering the burden of making sure there were no bumps on the road between the converging upon the stadiums of thousands of players, fans and officials and the referee’s whistle blast for kickoff.
“It’s tiring, no easy task. But I enjoy it. I have always loved football,” Meskerem said in a phone call to us from her hotel in Port Gentil. Back in January, Ethiosports had the opportunity to speak to her during the tournament. While she was sharing the fascinating stories of her rich experience in the game, Burkina Faso and Egypt were taking to the field in the day’s semi final tie. Egypt would win the game on penalties before losing out to Cameroon in the final. The game was being held in Libreville, away from her venue. This afforded her a rare day of rest in what had been a hectic month for her personally.
“We’ve had to accommodate both the Burkina Faso and Egypt delegations,” she said. “The losing team will play for third place here at my venue, Port Gentil. So I’m watching this game to see which of these teams I’ll go to meet tomorrow.”
Constantly smiling, and rather young for someone in her position, Meskerem might not appear at first glance to have an in depth knowledge about how to run the biggest money making sport on the planet. In her native Ethiopia, girls aren’t normally encouraged to take up sport. But before her sporting aspirations would have her debark on a journey that would take her from her hometown of Addis Ababa, across Europe and to the 2017 AFCON, she maintains that she had an undying passion for the game that wouldn’t ever be extinguished despite the many difficulties she would encounter.
Born and raised in the Kolfe district of the Ethiopian capital, Meskerem loved playing football as a girl and would even end up registering for her area’s project football team. The only child of her parents, her father didn’t dampen her enthusiasm, in fact most likely inflamed it by letting her accompany him when he would go out on the weekends to watch European football.
“I’m a lifelong Manchester United fan. My father used to take me with him to watch them play and my favourite player was their goal scorer, Andy Cole, I also like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney” said Meskerem, obviously uninhibited in her bias for the Red Devils. “As my father worked at the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and supported the company’s football club, I also supported Mebrat Hail (EEPCO) from local clubs. I loved the game and my parents understood this. If I wanted to leave the house and I told them I was going out to play or watch football, they wouldn’t object!”
As a child, Meskerem pursued her passion, playing for local project teams. In university, Meskerem would join the Addis Ababa University football team upon enrolling there. Despite opportunities in the field known to be few and far, she studied Physical Education and Sport at AAU, against the wishes of many friends and acquaintances.
“Everyone thought I was crazy when I chose that program. They did everything they could to change my mind, but I selected this path not because of the potential rewards but because it was and still is my passion in life. I filtered out people’s negative feedback to do what I love.”
After excelling in the program and passing with flying colours, Meskerem’s next stop would be Bahir Dar University. She worked as a graduate assistant for a year before returning to Addis Ababa University and completed a master’s degree, in football coaching of all things! Buoyed on by her own determination, she would continue reaping its benefits. She was hired at Bahir Dar University’s Department of Sports Science, where she lectured about the game. When Bahir Dar University realized they had a gem on their hands, they hired her to take charge of the University men’s football team. Under her wing, Bahir Dar University won the national title.
“I coached the 2010 Ethiopian national university championship winning team,” she joyously recalls. “It was a great feeling to win, I really loved the experience. Through coaching and teaching, you can actually see changes in a person because of your personal efforts. I like working with young people and still remain in contact with my boys.”
With her reputation and credentials growing, she was hired that same year by the Ethiopian Football Federation. Having made her intentions to oversee the growth of the women’s game clear, she was hired as Ethiopia’s women’s football development officer during former EFF President Sahlu Gebrewold’s time. Before Meskerem’s arrival, there was no such position, perhaps further evidence of her farsightedness which saw her successfully lobby for a greater focus on the women’s game.
In May of 2011, the EFF in tandem with CAF organized a women’s coaching instructor course. Five women were selected to take part and obtain their CAF C licenses. Among them, former women’s national team assistant coach and current St. George women’s team coach Selam Zeray, another former Ethiopian women’s national team assistant coach in Behailua Zeleke, the first woman to coach a professional men’s side Meseret Manni and Hiwot Arefaine who has coached in Mekelle. Meskerem would be the added to this prestigious list of some of the finest female minds behind the local game. The quintet earned the prestigious CAF Instructor title and obtained their CAF C coaching licenses.
Meskerem worked as a liaison officer for the Ethiopian national women’s side, dubbed “Lucy.” While working behind the scenes with Lucy during their successful campaign to qualify for the 2012 Women’s AFCON, she worked to upgrade her coaching credentials, travelling to Yaounde to attend a CAF coaching instructor course while later obtaining a CAF “B” coaching license.
One of the biggest coups in Ethiopian women’s football was the establishment of a women’s premier league, which would see the day in 2013. The Ethiopian Football federation ordered all professional men’s sides to start fielding women’s teams, much to the chagrin of some of the sides who complained of financial constraints and a lack of available female players.
The EFF set out to make it apparent that there were plenty of girls who would love a kick about. In August of 2012 under the coordination of Meskerem and the supervision of reputed coaches Abraham Teklehaimanot, Birhanu Gizaw and Behailua Zeleke, a month long training camp was held in Awassa to identify the gems in Ethiopia’s female footballing talent pool.
“We had about seventy girls from all across the country. Some were spotted at state tournaments, others from the All Ethiopia games. We fed them, housed them and gave them the chance to work with top coaches at the highest level in the country. It was a great success.”
With scouts at the camp, many of the girls left Awassa pursuing their dreams.
“Most of the girls signed for Premier League clubs after the camp. Loza Abera (current Lucy star striker) was one of the girls who really made an impact in Awassa.”
Meskerem would eventually leave her post at the EFF for educational opportunities. But the impression she left on colleagues at home and on her various travels meant that when FIFA set out to organize a beginner’s coaching course in Addis Ababa, her services were called on. One of the biggest names in African women’s football development Jacqui Shipanga of Namibia, personally sought her out. Meskerem was honoured and delighted at the chance of helping other women follow in her footsteps.
Always aiming higher she set about applying to enroll for the one year FIFA Master in Management, Law, & Humanities of Sport program. The FIFA endorsed program enhances one’s knowledge of the essentials surrounding sports development. With approximately thirty applicants from around the world accepted each year, Meskerem Tadesse being accepted was always going to be a long shot. But her academic successes and her being known in Africa as a budding name in developing the women’s game meant that Meskerem would be one of just four applicants from the entire African continent selected to pack up, leave home for Europe and the adventure of a lifetime. Her connections also played a crucial role. Many of them, including fellow students realized the potential she had and urged her onwards. She credits South African FA technical director Fran Hilton Smith with having encouraged her, but also for having gone one step further than others by writing a letter of recommendation that may have aided her case.
“It was exhilarating to finally realize that I had been selected. When I realized I would be leaving, there was a fear of the unknown, but also the excitement of seeing new things, exploring countries I hadn’t seen before.”
“It was a bit difficult initially, but thanks to my supportive fellow students of the FIFA Master’s family, teachers and kind Ethiopians in the diaspora, I managed to adapt rather quickly.”
Meskerem spent the 2015-16 academic year at distinguished universities in Europe being taught but also honing her already notable skills. Her travels took her to Leicester home of the English Premier League champions, Milan, and Neuchatel in Switzerland where she spent most of her time. Priceless among the many things she shared with me, was her advice for fellow Ethiopians who were contemplating a similar career path.
“Among the things I learned in Europe, one must assert him/herself! As Ethiopians we tend to be much less assertive. Culturally, we are raised to be obedient and sometimes passive. This results in many of us becoming timid or shy socially. A certain level of aggressiveness helps. Not too much obviously! But it’s important to break out of one’s shell!
Despite loads of studying, course assignments, gritty stick-to-itiveness and hard work, Meskerem also has a highlight reel of her time in Europe Attending the Croatia Turkey Euro 2016 game, meeting the likes of Inter Milan legend Javier Zanetti, acquainting herself with CAF officials and finally touring the grounds at Old Trafford, home of her beloved Manchester United may stand out among them.
But she has gained something far more valuable. “I have made friends with people from all around the world. My classmates, all thirty one students who were with me throughout the FIFA Masters’ course have become family. I have tried to seek out knowledge in order to better cater to my own country’s needs.”
This becomes quite evident as we are talking. Bringing up football, I lament what I consider to be the terrible state of affairs in Ethiopian football, blaming the head honchos in charge.
Meskerem refrains from endorsing my verbal assault on officials. Instead she points out room for improvement.
“In Ethiopia, the EFF’s principle occupation is overseeing the Ethiopian Premier League. Transfers, suspensions, goals and statistics, it’s tiring work. It shouldn’t be that way. I believe the league should be run by a separate body dedicated to making it bigger and better. It should be somewhat independent from the federation.”
Meskerem uses the Kenyan model as an example. “The Kenyan FA doesn’t run the Kenyan Premier League. I believe our federation should be more concerned with development, grassroots football and the senior and youth national teams. The pressing needs would be addressed if the federation didn’t involve itself week in week out with league play.”
Meskerem also attended the biannual Athletics UNESCO- Young Leaders forum held in July in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam. The topic of discussion was the use of sport for social change. Meskerem, always an assertive presence speaking from her experiences as an Ethiopian and an African, attended such meetings and gatherings dressed in traditional Ethiopian clothing. Seen carrying a giant Ethiopian flag at her FIFA Master graduation ceremony with fellow students, it is clear to anyone that Meskerem has also taken the ambassadorial role to heart.
“Being Ethiopian defines who I am as a person,” Meskerem said enthusiastically. I was raised in a household steeped in Ethiopian tradition and religion. It has shaped me as a person. I love showing off my culture and traditions and telling people where I am from.”
Before leaving for Europe, Meskerem would display her obvious attachment to her culture in the workplace. Throughout the 2014-15 academic year, she had a charged work schedule that involved her rotating between working as a Physical Education teacher at the International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia (ILAE) high school in Addis Ababa, while travelling twice or three times during the same week to do the same at the Adama Science and Technology University (ASTU), 90 kilometers south-east of the capital. She also coached the ASTU women’s team to glory winning the 2014-14 National University Games football title.
“It was an amazing feeling, winning that cup. We had finished in third place the previous year, so my girls and I worked hard to improve and become champions.”
In the midst of tiring commutes and a relentless work schedule, she saw the importance of establishing a sense of pride and culture in her younger students. So she lobbied the Ethiopian Cultural Games Federation (የባህል ስፖርቶች ፌደሬሽን) to support her efforts. After attending instructional courses, she was provided with some books and equipment, others she had to cover financially by herself. After her request was granted, she also taught Ethiopian cultural games to high school students.
“After connecting with the Cultural Games Federation, I introduced and taught Ethiopia’s cultural games as a curriculum program. With my students we had fun modifying our own cultural games equipment. It was really great. I loved that year.”
Going back and forth between two different educational institutions, coaching a women’s football team, it was in the midst of this chaotic routine that she had applied for her FIFA Master’s. Upon receiving her letter of acceptance, the task at hand became finding the funds to cover her accommodations and transportation in Europe. The whirlwind she found herself in may have been imposing, but having stuck it out and returned flashing more accolades, she can take pride in her efforts having been all the worthwhile. She would be Europe bound for the next academic year.
After a long ten months away from home in Europe, having stayed the course, and put in some gruelling effort, she joined the exclusive ranks of some three hundred or so to have successfully completed the FIFA Master in Management, Law and Humanities of Sports. She returned to Africa with a new perspective on life. She leaves just as the next class of FIFA Master applicants are preparing for their departures. Among those who hope to emulate Meskerem’s success, a former South Korean international and former star midfielder of Meskerem’s favourite club side Manchester United, Park Ji-Sung.
As if she wasn’t already showered in accolades, last November she officially obtained her CAF elite women’s instructor A licence, after an umpteenth trip to Cameroon. Instructor Meskerem, has now completed the set of coaching titles in Africa, some five years after first being selected among five Ethiopian football coaches to take courses with the goal of obtaining a CAF C license. She hasn’t skipped a beat since, and now she has reached the continental summit.
After wrapping up their work in Gabon, the CAF event coordination team got some well deserved R&R. Meskerem and her colleagues earned blessings of the likes of long-time CAF stalwarts such as her own countryman, Ato Fikru Kidane, the decorated former International Olympic Committee official and former advisor to the CAF Presidential office.
“El Hadji Diouf is crazy but a really nice guy!” Meskerem said after meeting the former Senegalese international and his 2002 World Cup teammate Khalilou Fadiga. “He asked me if I wanted to meet some of the stars, and he introduced me to Samuel Etoo, Marcel Desailly and others.”
Meskerem is back in Addis Ababa with her family. January had been a whirlwind of a month, heck it has been a whirlwind of a year for her! But her rest period was short lived. Her services were called upon yet again.
The recently concluded 39th CAF General Assembly was hosted in Addis Ababa, March 16-17 2017. Over three hundred delegates from all across Africa jetted into the Ethiopian capital to oversee a CAF Presidential election and deal with several pressing continental football matters.
In a chat before the big event, Meskerem expressed her joy at being selected to facilitate the ongoings of another CAF event.
“I’m now officially part of the Operational team for the upcoming CAF General Assembly,” she told me. It’s going to be big. I’m a little scared, but very excited!”
Meskerem and her colleagues remained true to their task. At the CAF Presidential election, there were no roadblocks or setbacks and everything went according to schedule. Everything, including the eventual dethroning of Issa Hayatou from the post of CAF President after 29 years. In sensational fashion, Madagascar’s Ahmad Ahmad was elected CAF President, after defeating the incumbent, in power since 1987, by 34 votes to 20.
For those who have followed Meskerem Tadesse’s progress, it isn’t a big surprise that she was in place to help run the meeting in Addis barely months after successfully contributing to the much more daunting task of organising the AFCON. It is clear that Meskerem is soaring towards the horizons in terms of her career. But where does Coach Meskerem see herself in the future?
“I want to work in Ethiopian football, especially women’s football. I want to serve my country. I have seen the value of the technical aspects of the game, but also the management and marketing aspect as well. In the future, I would like to start a sports management company. By creating a virtuous management setting and marketing the game the right way, we can enhance the local game.”
It is clear that she probably has a better understanding of the game than most do, especially due to the knowledge she amassed throughout her travels in Africa, and her year long stint in Europe. But she insists that more Ethiopians should follow her path, even personally attempting to persuade me to apply for FIFA Master enrollment.
“More Ethiopians should apply. Even if you aren’t accepted the first time, you should apply repeatedly. It is the opportunity of a lifetime and you learn so much. There are difficulties, but persevering pays off. Me myself, I’ve been defeated a lot, but I always try to get back up on the winning horse. So it would be great if more Ethiopians made the effort.”
So Meskerem Tadesse’s ride on the winning horse continues. Dreaming big, Ethiopian football could without a doubt make use of the up and coming stars such as the unheralded FIFA Master’s Alumnus whose highlight of the week used to be a weekend trip with her father in Addis to watch the English Premiership. Since those carefree days, life has changed greatly and the young woman is now an internationally renowned football organizing committee personality and remains dedicated to serving the continental game in different capacities.
For Meskerem, perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed in the slightest, besides her cutthroat determination and her diehard support of Manchester United would be her affinity to her roots.
“Never forget where you came from. It’s why you are here. It defines you as a person. If you don’t love where you are from, then you cannot love yourself. I come from an Ethiopian family that was poor and later eventually through determination and hard work, became middle class. It’s who I am. And I love it.”
We love it too Meski.
Photos: Courtesy of Meskerem Tadesse
Zecharias Zelalem is a regular contributor to Ethiosports.com
Photos: Courtesy of Meskerem Tadesse