By Damo Gotamo
Football in Ethiopia has been in life support for quite sometimes now. The ethnic virus that has spread in the country like a wildfire has found a perfect home in football. Football venues have become places where ethnic hatreds are incessantly spewed, innocent people beaten, and violent thugs promote the ethnic agendas of a few ethnic extremists. Instead of becoming places of entertainment and socialization, football stadiums have become sanctuaries to ethnic entrepreneurs who use football to promote their wicked agendas. Football has become a major security issue in the country. The government should suspend football until peace and security prevail in the country.
It has been a while since football has become a national disgrace to the country. It is a source of constant embarrassment on international scenes. The national team is a laughingstock of football fans in Africa. I said football fans in Africa because I doubt if many people outside Africa know if our country has a football team. How do they are expected to know if the team appears once in fifty years in meaningful international matches?
According to the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking released on April 4, Ethiopia ranked 150 out of 211 countries. The national team of Sudan is twenty places ahead of our team. Ethiopia is behind Myanmar, Yemen, and Afghanistan! In the new raking, the national team ranked better than only the tiny Djibouti and some small Islands.
Our players are significantly inferior to other African players in physical strength, technique, and psychological make up. Time and again we have seen our players easily succumb to physical plays of their opponents. They lack essential technical skills such as ball control, dribbling, passing, and body control. Players lack mental toughness and enter most of their international matches already mentally defeated. When the team starts conceding goals, there is no way of stopping the opposing team from scoring more goals except the final whistle. The players are easily intimidated by the presence of European based players in the opposing teams.
Add insult to injury, the so called Premier League of the country is marred by constant violence and lawlessness. The behaviors of football fans, players, leaders, and coaches have stooped so low that football stadiums have become scenes of shameful and violent acts. To understand how the situation got from bad to worse one only needs to see the number of games played behind closed doors. All the stakeholders in the country’s football have to blame for the bad state football in the league.
Leaders and coaches of a number of teams in the country are incompetent. They recruit players that lack skills and characters. They are deeply involved in corrupt practices, and football has become a source of wealth for them. Year after year a large amount of money is wasted for transfer and salary on players who barely feature for their teams.
Team leaders and coaches don’t accept defeat easily. If they lose games, they often lead their players to wreak havoc and violence on opposing teams and match officials. Many people still remember the scene of a violent attack at Addis Ababa Stadium last year when the Wolwalo Adigrat University football team coach led his players in assaulting the defenseless referee after his team conceded the second goal to Defense Force SC. The players who couldn’t beat their opponent in the match resorted to thuggish act kicking and beating the defenseless referee as if he were a punching bag.
The football fans of many teams play a major part in the lawlessness that is taking place in the country. They attack fans and players of the opposing teams. A couple of days ago, for example, the supporters of the Dedebit football club attacked the players of Fasil Kenema after their team conceded four goals in the match. Many people may not be surprised to hear such backward and cowardice act committed by the fans of a team that bears the name Dedebit. Ethiopians of all walks of life know that ethnic hatred and violence that has engulfed the country had been hatched in Dedebit pit by TPLF goons who escaped to hide in their birth place.
Football has also become a venue for promoting narrow ethnic agendas. Ethnic entrepreneurs have hijacked it to advance their political agenda by sending unemployed youth to stadiums to attack football fans.
Ethnic lords are leaders, advisers, and cashiers to a number of clubs in the country. For example, in Awassa alone there are three clubs where ethnic Sidama extremists run them as if they are their private clubs. They have unfettered access to the budget of the clubs and use them to promote their political agendas. The club leaders stay at their positions until they steal enough money for their retirement. Awassa doesn’t need three clubs which are hijacked by people who barely understand the purpose of sport and are only in the teams to steal.
The Sidama Coffee club, which is completely controlled by Sidama extremists represents the epitome of ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Ninety-five percent of its supporters don’t pay entrance fees because they are only wanted to taunt opposing team fans and promote the agendas of Sidama ethnic entrepreneurs. The team is registered Yiregalem as its home turf, a city 40 km away from Awassa. The Sidama extremists have relocated the team to Awassa on their own accord to use it as a political springboard to wage a campaign of terror on residents of Awassa. Every time the team plays in Awassa, terrified residents and businesses close their doors. Children stay at home for fear of being attacked. Parents leave work early to get to their home safely. Looting and property destructions are common after games.
Some team leaders work closely with extremist politicians and coordinate criminal activities that would take place inside and outside stadiums. The recent embarrassing and disgraceful crime that took place in Awassa before a football match between Wolita Ditacha and Debub police was carefully orchestrated among the team leaders, extremists, police and the thugs who beat football fans inside the stadium.
Although insulting players by their ethnic origin at football stadiums in Ethiopia isn’t new, the ethnic politics that country has been following for the last twenty-eight years has immensely contributed to the current problem. The problem has become so pervasive and widespread that most often it leads to physical attacks.
Naming football teams after ethnic identity has exacerbated the situation. When their team loses a match, many fans think as if their tribe has lost the game. It is common, for example, to see lawlessness and thuggish behaviors in Awassa when ever the Sidama Coffee team loses a match. Its supporters run the city amok looting and destroying everything on their way home. On the other hand, when their team wins a match, the fans get excited and head to different locations in the city to insult and taunt the non-Sidama residents of the city. Their action entails as if the Sidama tribe fought against other tribes.
Fixing the mess of Ethiopian football is not an easy task. There are no easy solutions to correct the problem that has been lingering for many years. But, a number of positive steps can be taken to remedy the situation and help our national team improve and create a healthy football environment.
The first thing authorities need to do is use the money wasted on football in a sport that has been proven to produce results and has made the country famous on international scenes. The average budget of a Premier League team in Ethiopia is 50 million birr a year.
Money to run the clubs comes out of the government coffers. It is a huge amount of money considering the poor economic conditions in the country.
With half of the money that goes to a single football club, the country can produce hundreds of world-class athletes. Why don’t we spend the money in training and grooming new athletes who will replace the aging heroes like Kenenisa Bekele, Turnunesh Dibaba, and Mesert Defer?
Athletics has been the pride of the country since the times of Abebe Bekila. Heroes like Merus Yifter, Belayneh Dinsamo, and Kenenisa had never let down their county. Ethiopians have always been proud of their athletes.
I also suggest that the country recruit young children from the age of seven as football players and groom them for the future. Select three hundred to four hundred kids and spend money on their education, shelter, and care. We will have quality players that will be the pride of the nation. The world most prolific players like Anderes Iniesta and Xavi Herndes of Spain are the products of early grooming. When young children are groomed early, they can easily learn the football basics, techniques, good habits, and mental toughness. As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We can’t make football in Ethiopia better if we keep on doing the same things over again and again. Football in Ethiopia needs fresh ideas and exploring new things.
Changing the current format and removing ethnic prefixes from football clubs needs to be a priority when reinstating the game in the future. As a rule, there is nothing wrong with naming teams after ethnicity. In developed countries naming sports clubs after ethnic identity are common. For example, American football teams like Minnesota Viking, Houston Texas, New York Yankees, and the Washington Redskins are named after ethnic names.
Other than the name of the Washington Redskins, there haven’t been serous problems with naming clubs after ethnic identities. Native Americans accuse the Redskin’s organization by saying that the name is derogatory to the Indian tribe and promotes stereotyping. We don’t see football fans in the United States fighting and resorting to ethnic slurs when their teams lose matches. However, in a country like ours where ethnic politics is the norm and ethnic hatred has been preached for years, keeping ethnic names is a recipe for further disaster.
To sum up, at this time the quality of football in Ethiopia is inferior and football has become a security risk. Locally, the players, teams, and coaches are not up to the standard, and they lack true sportsmanship. On the international stage, for a long time, the performance of the national team has been extremely poor. Beating Djibouti and Somalian national football teams isn’t what football fans in Ethiopia expect out of their national team.
The expectation of Ethiopian football fans and the performance of the national team have been incompatible. A large amount of the tax payers money is wasted for a product that lacks quality.
Fans and football stadiums are used as a means to promote the agenda of ethnic extremists. Football clubs in the county are riddled with corruption and stadiums are marred by violence.
The clubs have become hiding places to ethnic entrepreneurs and sources of insecurity to the county. Peace and stability must precede to any activity that presents a danger to the security of the country. That country has already many fires to put up with as a result of ethnic violence. Football must not be allowed to be used as a fuel to a burning fire. Diverting the resources in developing future athletes and football players will in the long run help mend our wounded pride and bring joy to the football fans. I strongly recommend the government to suspend football until peace and stability prevails in the country.