Defending champions Zambia and Nigeria are the top seeded teams in Group C at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, but both found out the hard way that they might not have it all their way as they were held to 1-1 draws in their opening games on Wednesday. FIFA.com looks at the most surprising side of the section so far: Ethiopia, who managed to not only hold their own against holders Zambia but just missed out on a stunning upset.
Going into the match against the Chipolopolo, Ethiopia, who is the lowest-ranked team in the finals at 110 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, had not scored a goal for almost 37 years at the AFCON finals. And after striker Saladin Said missed an early opportunity with the goal at his mercy and saw his penalty saved by Zambian goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene shortly afterwards, it seemed as if the scales were tipped against the 1962 champions. To make matters worse, the Walya Antelopes had goalkeeper Jemal Tassew sent off in the first half after a wild lunge on Chisamba Lungu.
The southern Africans made their numerical advantage count deep in first-half injury time as Collins Mbesuma gave them the lead, and it seemed a rout would be on. But the 2012 champions were made to pay for some missed chances as impressive 24-year-old Said, who is one of just three members of the squad not playing their club football in Ethiopia, set up Adane Girma in the 66th minute for the equaliser. The Wadi Degla forward Said, who won the man of the match award, admitted that it had not been an easy game for his side. "First, I missed the penalty, then we lost a man after the red card. But our team played very well today and everybody showed we can put up a big fight, so we are very happy with this point."
The last time Ethiopia competed at the AFCON finals was in 1982 when they also faced Zambia and Nigeria in the group stages. In that case, they were eliminated in the first round after losing to both sides (3-0 to the Super Eagles and 1-0 against Zambia) and playing out a goalless draw against Algeria. However, after this good result against the reigning champions, Said and his team-mates are dreaming of going further in the tournament. "We don't fear our next opponents Burkina Faso or Nigeria. Big teams are not a problem for us. We go into every match wanting to win it. If we win the next match, we will go to the next round."
Team-mate Fuad Ibrahim, 21, who plays for Minnesota Stars FC in the United States is confident Ethiopia can overcome the mistakes they made and get even better moving forward. "It was a really good match for us. Everybody from our team helped each other, and happily we made the goal for a draw. We will now turn our concentration to Burkina Faso, and if we correct our mistakes, we surely can win," said the former USA youth international, who played in every game for the Stars & Stripes at the 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw, who has engineered his side's upswing in fortunes that also sees them atop their 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group, was also happy with his side, praising their fighting spirit after going down a man. "I am happy as we missed a penalty and still drew. This is our first experience after 31 years, so, as you see, it was fantastic experience. The players have shown their character and shown the rest of the world they can play football."
French coach Herve Renard, who led Zambia to their sensational win in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea last year and fielded 10 players from that team, said he was not surprised that Ethiopia had played so strongly. "I said many times before the game that we had to be careful, and I would like to congratulate Ethiopia for a very good performance.”
The Ethiopians even received praise from Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi who said that all four teams in the group were capable of advancing to the quarter-finals. "There are no weak teams here, and Ethiopia showed that they deserve to be at the competition. The group is a strong one."
With Burkina Faso also registering a surprising 1-1 draw against two-time champions Nigeria, the group remains wide open and all four teams can dream of securing the final place at this year's FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil for which the AFCON champion qualifies.