I just got back from watching Ethiopia play Ghana in some sort of African Cup soccer qualifier. It was fascinating to be with people universally from a different country. Everyone was surprised I rooting for Ethiopia. I was even outfitted in my Ethiopia shirt. Interestingly enough not everyone was rooting for Ethiopia. There were certain people who, well, don’t have a lot of pride in the country. As the national anthems were playing they panned over the starting 11. A cry erupted in the room. “Oh no, Jamal is playing, wayyo, wayyo.” I asked if Jamal sucked or something. My Vice Principal sitting next to me told me he is Muslim. It was a late afternoon game, and it happens to be smack in the middle of Ramadan. Jamal hasn’t eaten all day. Jamal’s play wouldn’t matter much. Ethiopia got annihilated. They conceded 5 goals in the first 50 minutes. They were outclassed every second of the game. Ghana has players in the Premier League, and all over Europe. Ethiopia has Tekalyn, he played in Belgium once. His receding hairline made me think it was a while ago. I have no idea why Ghana is good at soccer. I do know why Ethiopia is bad at soccer. In this post I’ll give my insights from living here a year on why Ethiopia, a soccer crazed nation of 90 million people, is god awful at soccer on an international level. Some of the reasons won’t surprise you, some may. With my background, and passion for sports it’s a question I ponder frequently.
Let me first tell you a few things about soccer in Ethiopia. Soccer is far and away the most popular sport. It’s the only professional sport they follow. Now, don’t picture this like there was only football in America. A significant portion of people don’t care about sports at all. But, Messi and Ronaldo are all over people’s drawstring bags. I always think back to middle school everyone used them as backpacks with their nation’s heritage on them, Puerto Rico, Cuba etc. I had the unfortunate cycle of using a gray nike drawstring bag as a backpack, far from my worst fashion choices of middle school. That would go to wearing a white undershirt under everything including basketball jerseys and other t-shirts because I was self conscious of being too skinny. Yes, you can hate me, I sure hated myself. Rip off Premier League Chinese jerseys are also very popular here.
There is a basic floor of skill every Ethiopian male has of soccer. Everyone I know can dribble a soccer ball on their foot like a ball and paddle. They like to watch me struggle to control the ball with one or two bounces before the ball careens off the side of my uncoordinated foot. The problem is they never hone these skills beyond the most basic level. There is no practice. It is only games. I got one of the best volleyball players in town, Samwell, to come teach me some of his volleyball techniques. He was confused, he was baffled I wanted learn not play a game. Why practice when we can play a game? Games are a lot more fun. I’m using volleyball for evidence of wider, cultural trends because I play a lot more volleyball, but the same traits apply to soccer. Ethiopia has the same problems on the international level of volleyball as with soccer. Despite volleyball being an easier sport to compete in and it being universally popular to play, if not to watch. I have added new swings to my volleyball game for different situations. For example, I have a whirling dervish of hitting a ball over the net when my back is to the net. It’s as if I am vigorously raising my hand. People got mad at me because the first couple times I screwed up. It was in the middle of a game and people wanted to win, understandable. But, it takes failure to improve.
There are no organized league in Ethiopia. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but that has wide ranging implications. If you’re a gifted soccer player in Lalo you maybe get to play with the adults at around 13-14. Then if you’re good enough you get to play in the zonal competition in Mettu with the best players from Lalo. If you have a good 3 games or so, maybe some scout is in the stands. Absolute best case scenario you’re recognized at age 14. That’s way too late to get quality coaching. This lack of communication about young players skill eliminates the advantage of having a pool of 90 million people. The professional players and players on the national team mostly hail from the largest metropolitan areas.
The fields they play on are just wretched. At the zonal competition for soccer the field was a lumpy, wide open, dirt field. It’s difficult to improve skills when the ball doesn’t bounce at a consistent angle or you can’t run full speed because you might break an ankle on a patch of uneven ground. In America we take for granted our landscaping and uniform playing fields. Here in Ethiopia they have no concept of that, there isn’t a blueprint for standardization like we have. They say there’s a field, play soccer.