ADDIS ABABA —
Ethiopia’s football (soccer) team hopes to excel when it makes its first appearance in 31 years at the Africa Cup of Nations. The young players hope to relive Ethiopia's past glories at the tournament that begins next week in South Africa.
Ethiopia participated in the very first Africa Cup of Nations, in 1957, and won the trophy in 1962.
But that was a long time ago, and national team coach Sewnet Bishaw said his young team is under a lot of pressure, as this is a new experience for all the players.
“Most of them were not there when Ethiopia was qualifying for Africa Cup of Nations the last 31 years back. We have psychology class every two days, we teach them. And to erase this pressure we have arranged games to practice,” said Bishaw.
Adane Girma is one of the top players in the Ethiopian football league. He said the psychology classes are very useful.
He said that he thinks the team is feeling less pressured because the psychology and nutrition class is helping them a lot. Adane said they are being taught a lot of things that are helping them concentrate on every game, keep themselves well and have confidence in their abilities.
During team practices in the capital’s stadium, the stands are filled. Football fan Alazar, a young salesman who has high expectations for the national team, said he believes the national team will bring back the trophy as he witnessed good quality football when they were playing friendly matches.
The team, nicknamed the Walya Antelopes, for an antelope found only in Ethiopia, qualified for the African Cup of Nations after beating Sudan, 2-0, in October. The last time Ethiopia participated was in 1982.
The long-awaited appearance of the national team in the tournament comes after many changes within the Ethiopian football league. President of the Ethiopian Football Federation Sahilu Gebremariam said there were many problems to be fixed.
“We used to interfere in all operational matters. Now we have a clear cut role and responsibilities," Gebremariam said. "All the technical matters, we left it to the professionals, we don’t interfere. The last three years we have been doing vigorously and a lot so based on that you can see the cumulative effect now.”
The success of the Walyas has also generated much needed funds. The Ethiopian government granted almost half a million dollars, many local businessmen have donated sizeable amounts and international beer brewer Heineken just signed a $1.3 million contract with the team.
One week before the start of the Africa Cup of Nations, coach Bishaw keeps training light so the players will be in perfect shape for their first match - against defending champion Zambia.
Saladin Said is the only national team player who plays professionally in another country. The Egyptian Premier League forward says he feels the Walyas are ready to compete.
Ethiopia will play their match against Zambia on January 21. They will also face Nigeria and Burkina Faso in the first round.