Ethiopia have made a bright start in their bid to reach a first-ever FIFA World Cup™, collecting four points from a possible six. But the excitement those two results have created is nevertheless being superseded by the fever surrounding the country’s women, who are off to the CAF African Women’s Championship later this year.
“There is no doubt that the most popular team in Ethiopia now is the women, even though the men played very well last month in the World Cup qualifiers,” said a proud Ethiopia Football Federation President Salihu Gebremariam. “We are great believers in what FIFA President Sepp Blatter said a few years ago: that the future of football is feminine.”
It is not the maiden time that the Ethiopia women’s team has qualified for the continental finals, but the first since the end of the nation’s lengthy suspension from the international game. Lucy, as the side is nicknamed after a hominin specimen discovered in the 1970s and estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago, beat Tanzania in June to reach the eight-team tournament, which will unfold in Equatorial Guinea from 28 October to 11 November.
FIFA organised a women’s Com-unity seminar in Addis Ababa to add further impetus and momentum to the excitement around the team, and it has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Around 100 delegates attended the three-day event this past week, along with figures from the leadership of women’s football in the country, regional organisers, many of the national team players and coaches.
There is no doubt that the most popular team in Ethiopia now is the women, even though the men played very well last month in the World Cup qualifiers.
They were joined by federal sports officials, representatives from the country’s successful National Olympic Committee, organisers from non-government organisations and charities, representatives from the private sector and by media members.
It was officially opened by Ambesse Eneyew, vice chairman of the Federal Sports Commission, who spoke of the close co-operation with the EFF. The mix made for lively debate and discussion on the future of the women’s game, with a wide range of topics discussed. Co-operation across the sectors was the main focus of the deliberations, which concluded with a series of resolutions at the end of workshops which have since been presented to the Ethiopia Football Federation for implementation.
“There are a lot of exciting things that we can work on now to make the women’s game in the country a whole lot better,” said Ashenafi Ejigu, the EFF general secretary.
Resolutions included trying to get more regular girls’ competition into schools and making better use of school facilities, an idea that resonated strongly with Mrs Etenesh Tegegn of the Federal Sports Commission, who also presented a talk at the seminar. “This was a very helpful discussion for which we thank FIFA,” she said.
More co-operations with NGOs were also recommended, plus better co-operation with the media and a much stronger marketing approach. There are also now plans for a women’s football day across the country to touch the grassroots, and a research project, in co-operation with a local university, to capture and collate the varied history of women’s football in Ethiopia.
Among those at the seminar was Birhima Gebremariam, captain of the first women’s football team in Ethiopia, whose recollection of the pioneering days touched the audience.
The EFF unveiled its immediate and future plans for women’s football, which include putting together an elite group of 70 players for the national team, drawn from across the country’s regions, plus an expansion of the talent identification programme at grassroots level, said the acting technical director Kuru Mekonen. This will hopefully increase the country’s chances at the CAF Women’s Championship, where Ethiopia’s best performance to date has been a semi-final slot at South Africa 2004.
The course ended with a girls’ festival at the Addis Ababa Stadium, where the range of skills displayed hinted at a bright future for Lucy and the women’s game in the horn of Africa.