Later this month, Ethiopia will return for their first CAF Africa Cup of Nations appearance in 31 years, a victory in itself. However, the Walya Antelopes were drawn into a tough group that will see them face off against Burkina Faso, holders Zambia, two-time African champions Nigeria. And yet, after spectacularly upsetting Benin and Sudan in qualifying - each time on away goals - the Ethiopians believe they can again tear up the form book and get past the first round. That, certainly, is the view of star striker Saladin Said.
Said, who plays for Egyptian side Wadi Degla, admitted that the east Africans face a daunting test in the 19 January-10 February tournament in South Africa, but he insisted Ethiopia will fight hard to earn a quarter-final berth. “Our group is very difficult. Nigeria is a big team, and so is Zambia, who won the Nations Cup the last time,” Said, who has scored nine goals in 12 international appearances, told FIFA.com. “However, our team is also strong. We have lost only one game in the last year, so I believe we can have a good tournament, God willing. We will play with the aim of reaching the next round.”
All signs point to resurgence
Ethiopia will be looking to restore the old glory days, having finished second and third in the first two Nations Cup editions in 1957 and 1959 respectively before winning the tournament in 1962 on home soil. A recent upswing after years in the footballing doldrums saw them end their long Cup of Nations appearance drought by beating Benin on the away-goals rule following a 1-1 aggregate draw before impressively overturning a first-leg deficit to dispatch Sudan in the final qualifier. Trailing 5-3 from the first leg, the Ethiopians stormed back at home to win 2-0, thanks to a decisive goal from Said, who scored the winner with a clinical close-range effort to spark wild celebrations in Addis Ababa.
However, despite these high times, there is still a long way to go for the largely inexperienced Antelopes when compared against the best teams on the continent. “I can’t say which team is the toughest in our Nations Cup group, all three are difficult,” said the 24-year-old Said, who is one of two foreign-based players in Ethiopia’s current crop along with fellow striker Fikru Teferra, who plays in Vietnam.
“Nigeria have many professional players in Europe, and Zambia are a very good team. I don’t know much about Burkina Faso, I haven’t watched them for three or four years. Before we begin the Nations Cup, we will play three friendly games against Niger, Togo and Tunisia. I hope we can get good results that will boost our confidence before we start our campaign.”
Said, a household name in Ethiopian football, joined Egypt’s Wadi Degla on a three-year deal in the summer of 2011, but he had little time to make an impact after the Egyptian Premier League was suspended in the wake of last February’s Port Said disaster. Asked whether the football stoppage in Egypt could affect his performances at the finals, Said admitted: “This is a serious problem, I’m afraid of that. But I hope the pre-tournament friendlies will help me be ready and fit.”
A great start on the road to 2014
Proving that their Cup of Nations qualification was no fluke, Ethiopia have also made a superb start to their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying campaign. They reached the group stage after thrashing Somalia 5-0 on aggregate, and surprised everyone by toppinh Group A with four points after two matches. Said again stole the limelight after scoring his side’s solitary goal in a 1-1 away draw at South Africa before netting twice in the 2-0 win over Central African Republic.
Central African Republic are currently second in the group with three points, one ahead of South African and two clear of bottom side Botswana with three matches remaining. Only the group winners will advance to play a two-legged tie for a place at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. Ethiopia have never played at a World Cup, but Said revealed a surprising boldness in his hopes. “Our World Cup qualifying group is easier than our Nations Cup group. I'd say we have a 70 per cent chance of reaching the final qualifying round."