Remains of a beautiful game

Like many of my fellow Ethiopians, I’ve always been mad about football. I used to play and watch a lot as a schoolboy. My thinking back then was that if I was unable to go to college, my only hope would be to play football as a career.

Shouting one another’s names as dawn broke, my friends and I would wake one another to play on one of the main tarred roads in our neighbourhood, stopping now and then to let cars, pregnant women and the elderly pass, but never stopping for rain. To further emulate world-class players, we used to go to cafés to watch international games.

One day, when I was about 16, I was looking for somewhere to watch one particular game, right after class. It was England versus Germany — one of the most anticipated Euro ’96 matches. While restlessly walking around areas that are home to cafés and hotels, I saw five or six boys huddled around a TV set outside a roadside café called Metema. I ran to join them. But it was not easy to get a glimpse of the TV set, so I kept on peeping, pushing and shoving for the feast of football.

Tension started to brew, resulting in ominous exchanges. One of the boys shrieked: ”Hey, you stepped on my toes!” Another shouted: ”Get your arm off me!” Still another shouted: ”You’re blocking my view!” The frenzy was settled when the doorman lashed one of us from behind. We took flight to save our bottoms.

But, by hook or by crook, I had to watch that game. I had a risky idea. I was flat broke, but I walked into a café and took the only seat left. I ordered a cup of tea and drank it very slowly while watching the captivating game — which Germany won in the end, six goals to five, on penalties.

When I finished the tea, the waitress gave me the bill. I started fumbling in my pockets for the money I knew I didn’t have and looking down at the floor as if searching for lost coins. Feverishly, I checked my pockets again. The waitress was a nice person and told me to bring the money some other time. I felt a little embarrassed when the grown-ups around me started to throw me looks. The next day I went back to the café, thanked the waitress and paid her. It was only 25 cents, after all.

Football is ubiquitous in Addis Ababa and many other regions of the country, and not just playing it. People talk and argue about it passionately. Our newspapers write about it and radio programmes are full of it. It is common to see youngsters playing on fields full of mud, stagnant water or gravel — or a combination of these. Many Ethiopians wear English football stars’ shirts, even in remote areas, and Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have many supporters. DStv broadcasts many of the games live. Some entrepreneurial types subscribe to the pay channel, then charge others to watch the game for anything between three and 10 Birr.

But the local obsession with English football is starting to make some uncomfortable, Brit-style hooliganism is becoming a matter of concern, especially when Arsenal and Manchester play. You hear about incidents in which ”a guy hit three people with a spade” or ”a certain club’s fan was stabbed”. I witnessed a young man, who was furious when a second goal was scored against his club (Arsenal), cutting a wire, plunging­ the house in darkness and causing a great commotion.

Many Ethiopians try to justify their allegiance to the English Premier League by blaming our country’s ever-worsening football. Historically, we had one of the best national teams in Africa. Ethiopia was a founder and a participant in the first tournament of the Confederation of African Football in 1957, with Sudan and Egypt. We won the third Africa Cup of Nations in 1962, beating Egypt 4-2 on penalties. We also hosted three Cup of Nations tournaments in 1962, 1968 and 1976. But the national team’s glory days have been over for a long time.

It is common to hear elders reminiscing about what Ethiopian football used to be like. They say that commentators used to compare our football with that of the Brazilians. Many are filled with a longing for our football to regain its beauty and avoid so easily conceding defeat.

Once our Prime Minister Meles Zenawi allegedly said, ”Was the game the whole day?” when he heard that the Ethiopian national team had lost by many goals to nil to another African national team. The prime minister also expressed his total disregard for the seven or eight players who applied for political asylum in Italy, saying: ”The country would have been mourning today if it lost one farmer instead.”

So if you tune in to any of our FM radio stations, the dominant news would be of rumoured or actual purchases of players by the English clubs, the salaries of some players, blah, blah, blah. There may be factors apart from the zeal for football why this information matters to most Ethiopians. Many are apathetic about politics and other things and use sports as an escape.

But, whatever the reasons, most of us are now looking forward to two things to quench our thirst for football. One is the new season of the English Premier League that kicked off in August and, for me, games that include my team Manchester United. The other is the qualification of the Ethiopian national team for the next Africa Cup of Nations in 2010 in Angola. Personally, I would do anything to be booked for these events.

Tefera Teklu is an English teacher and freelance writer. He is completing a Master’s in journalism and communications at Addis Ababa University


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