Yilma Ketema, the first Ethiopian Professional Football Player in Europe

Yilma Ketema and Awad Mohamed with Omedla FC.

My recollection of Yilma Ketema dates back to the early 1960s when we were both students at Lycée Guebre-Mariam, the French international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although

he was much older than me, I, just like everyone else in our school, knew who he was – a star football player of our school.

Yilma was a speedy left-footer with mesmerizing dribbling skills and powerful shots. So, it was not surprising when he was recruited by Omedla, one of the top Ethiopian football clubs at the time. The team had a good connection with our school as it used to hold its twice-a-week football practice on our football ground and the team had among its ranks another famous Lycéen, Awad Mohamed, who helped Ethiopia win its one and only African Cup in 1962.

I couldn’t find any information on how many games Yilma played for Omedla but he must have done well that he joined the Greek first division side Aris Thessaloniki F.C in 1964 at the age of 19. In doing so, he became the first Ethiopian professional football player in Europe and also the first black professional player in Greece.

Yilma with Aris

One of the highlights of his career with Aris was when his team Aris faced AS Roma in the 1964-65 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tournament. Although the match ended in a scoreless tie in Thessaloniki, Yilma had a goal disallowed and had such a wonderful game that he was voted player of the match. The return leg match ended in Roma’s favor as they won 3-0 and advanced to the next round.

Unfortunately, Yilma had to look for a new home as the Greek Football Federation imposed a foreign player ban. So, he left for Turkey where he joined the famous Galatasaray FC. During his 3-year (1964-67) stay there, the team won the Turkish Cup twice (1965-66 & 1966-67).

He then tried his luck in Austria and the Netherlands before landing in the US where he joined the Boston Beacons of the old North American Soccer League (NASL). He played 5 games for the team scoring 1 goal with no assist.

He then moved to New York, where he lived for a number of years before settling in Alexandria, Virginia.

Yilma played twice for the Ethiopian national team and scored 2 goals according to the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) and he was the guest of honor at the annual Ethiopian Soccer Federation in North America (ESFNA) Tournament held in Virginia in 2008.