Culture

JUST FOR KICKS

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By Martin Armstrong

Addis Ababa: Night had fallen in the 35,000 capacity Addis Ababa Stadium. Anxious SC Bunna fans, donning the yellow and brown of their home team, began checking their watches. Others looked bored. There were ten minutes left. The score 0-0.

Bunna, the Amharic word for coffee, were positioned mid-table in the Ethiopian league. Their opponents were Dashen Beer FC, a team named after a brewery named after a mountain hailing from the city of Gondor, Ethiopia’s old imperial capital, located 930 km north of Addis.

Dashen were sitting a few points above the relegation zone. Few of their fans had made the journey to the Ethiopian capital. Leon, an agriculture student based in Addis with a friendly smile and darting eyes that belied a nagging qat habit was keeping his allegiance fairly tight-lipped.

“We really need a point,” said Leon, clenching his fists to restrain nervous energy. “Come on Bunna!” he shouted before winking mischievously.

Shouts of agitation went up amongst the Bunna faithful as fans rose to their feet and started gesticulating pitchwards.

The Dashen goalkeeper, earlier nicknamed Harrison Marmar (a bastardisation of the Arabic word for goalkeeper, mixed with Harrison Ford) for a disposition towards the theatrical, lay spread-eagled on the turf after a 50-50 with an opposition striker. Harrison was clearly time-wasting. Leon joked that he might have a sore toe. Throughout the match Harrison had inexplicably been toe-punting goal-kicks. After a minute the referee picked Harrison up. He quickly returned to his raison d’être, toe-punting a goal-kick into touch just over the halfway line.

With 84 minutes on the clock, it had been a pretty awful match.

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With the exception of the site of Muslim members of the crowd congregating to observe prayers, separated from the pitch by only advertising boards and an athletics track, ten minutes into the second half, the match had produced little worthy of note. In addition to Harrison’s antics, the Bunna right back appeared scared of heading the ball and had a pass completion rate hovering around the 15 percent mark, at least one shot had gone for a throw in, another into orbit, whilst several of the outfield players appeared to have studied at the Boris Johnson school of tackling.

The site of players warming up, before kick-off, with the disturbing Adidas Jabulani, a veritable poltergeist of a ball used during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, had seemed a worrying portent, at least as far as shooting accuracy went. It was proving true.

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Currently, Ethiopian Football is dominated by St George, like Dashen, a team associated with a brewery. The Addis based team have won the Ethiopian premiership 25 times, and were on course to make it 26. In addition to teams named after breweries, banks and a cement factory, the Ethiopian premiership also includes a team called Defence. Formerly associated with the country’s armed forces, Defence had the second best defensive record in the league throughout the 2014-15 campaign, second only to St George.

“They were much better than us this season,” Leon had said, matter-of-factly, sitting at a bar tucked into an alcove of the stadium’s outer wall prior to kick off. Bunna and Dashen had both been defeated by St George, home and away, earlier in the season. In addition to numerous bars, the stadium was also home to an incongruous mix of language & translation centres, as well as leather shops.

“Year in year out they are able to afford bigger transfer fees. Over the last few years they have dominated.”

The Ethiopian transfer record currently stands at 1,000,000 birr ($48,672.46). It was in fact paid by Dashen, Leon’s team, to Dedebit FC for centre-back and one time national captain Aynalem Hailu in 2013. In 1951, the world transfer record stood at $53,461.60, when Jackie Sewell, an England international who later captained Zambia, was sold from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday.

Surrounding Leon, Bunna fans had knocked back bottles of St George and Dashen, some chanting in groups lead by a master of ceremony. Such scenes would be repeated inside the stadium after kick-off when a particularly boisterous group of Bunna fans would intermittently do their own Poznan – a chant/celebration originally associated with Polish club Lech Posnan during which supporters join arms, stand with their backs to the pitch and jump on the spot in unison. With Easter holidays set to begin the following day, an excitable, welcoming, and slightly tipsy atmosphere pervaded the stadium’s bars as waiters manoeuvred through crowds accompanied by a soundtrack of Ethiopian Jazz, Reggae and Pop music, football chants, and pool balls rattling pockets.

Amongst the thrall of street vendors, ranging in age between seven and seventy, hawked CDs, football kits, luminous plastic whistles, lottery tickets and scratch cards, beard trimmers, biros called “OBAMA” and 10 inch kitchen knives.

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Leon had explained that with Easter Sunday approaching and goats to sacrifice, people might be looking for a nice knife for the job. He didn’t completely understand why such implements were not allowed to be sold around stadiums in other countries.

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Back inside the stadium, as the seconds ticked away, Leon revealed that he supported Arsenal, drawing reference to Gedion Zelalem, an 18-year-old youth midfielder with the north London club. Zelalem, born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, recently made his debut for the US under-20 team, having moved to Maryland as a 12-year-old.

A lot of people in Addis claimed him as their own. Conversations about football often went beyond name-dropping the Messis and Ronaldos of the global game. Whilst no one mentioned John Wark, a man sitting beside a roadside cafe in a hamlet near the eastern town of Harar had, on one occasion, reflected sadly that it was a shame former Norwich, West Ham, and Crew Alexandria striker Dean Ashton’s promising career had been cut short by injury.

Whilst Ethiopian distance runners have come to dominate the world stage things have not always been plain-sailing for the national football team.

The “Walyas” came within 180 minutes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, before losing in a two-leg play off against Nigeria. Earlier in qualifying rounds, the team had shot itself in the foot, fielding a suspended player in a 2-1 win over Botswana. They were consequently docked 3 points by FIFA.

It wasn’t the first time the institution had been reprimanded by the world’s football governing body. In 2008 Ethiopia was banned from qualification for the 2010 World Cup after failing to resolve an internal power struggle which lead to the existence of rival presidencies within the EFF. Currently, Ethiopia sits 101st in FIFA’s World rankings, nestled between Lithuania and the Faroe Islands.

The Walyas’ only ever victory in the African Cup of Nations came back in 1962, the third time the competition was ever held. In the same stadium in which Bunna and Dashen were now slugging out a 0-0 draw, a 4-2 win was then secured in the final against Egypt. The first football league had been founded in the country twenty years earlier when the majority of its players were Armenian, Italian, Greek, and English missionaries and traders that had settled in Ethiopia.

In the 85th minute of the 1962 game, with Ethiopia trailing 2-1, Mengistu Worku, a no. 8 regarded as Ethiopia’s greatest ever player, had risen tallest from a corner to equalise, before victory was secured in extra-time. As legend goes in the act of scoring, Worku received a celebratory punch in the face from the flailing arm of the Egyptian keeper. Years later, Worku, whose father was killed resisting the Italian invasion (1935-41), reflected humorously on the occasion:

“My father died defending my country, so I had no problems taking a black eye for Ethiopia.”

Despite the relative success of the Ethiopian national team in the 60s, the rise to power of the Derg, a communist junta that seized power from Emperor Haile Sellasie in 1974, saw football fall since into disrepute. Under the authority of Derg (1974-97) leader Haile Mengistu Mariam, who ruled Ethiopia with a vice-like grip through regular bouts of state-sponsored repression, an estimated 500,000 to  two million people were killed. Many footballers fled the country as a result of the violence, while others faced the firing squads.

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Back in the Addis Ababa stadium, Leon pointed to the pitch, stating that at one time during the Derg’s reign, Mariam had considered turning the stadium into arable land for farming.

“Imagine that?” said Leon, a look of incredulity on his face.

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It was now the 85th minute.

Bunna were pressing forward searching for a winner. Chants broke out amongst the Bunna faithful as a half-chance opened up down the team’s left flank . But there were to be no black eyes, no Worku moments of magic this time.

In the final minutes of the game, Dashen’s outfield players decided to follow Harrison’s example and began booting the ball deep into Bunna territory at any given opportunity like a collective of fly-halves kicking for territory. One Dashen player who attempted a one-two was reprimanded by a teammate.

Even Leon was starting to look a bit embarrassed. However, as the final whistle blew, he allowed himself a little fist-pump.

“I’ll take that,” said Leon , “sometimes you have to play ugly to get results, like Chelsea,” he said standing up from his seat.

A crowd of Bunna fans had congregated pitch-side to hurl some fairly warranted abuse at the departing players. After a minute, having said their peace, they filtered out of the stadium into the fumes, LARDA taxis and open drain-holes of the Ethiopian capital’s streets, chanting as they went along, despite the result.

Leon joined in.

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