Despite being one of Africa's first football powers, Ethiopia have failed to make an impact on the continental scene for quite some time. After winning just the third CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1962 and riding a crest through the 1960s, the east African country has failed to reach the AFCON for almost three decades, having adjusted their perspective to be one of patience, hard work and development. And so, drawn into a tough Group B in qualifying for the 2012 finals alongside heavily favoured sides like Nigeria and Guinea, the Walya Antelopes are hoping to keep their noses down and spring a surprise or two.
It is a blue-collar perspective that national team coach, Iffy Onuora, a Scotland-born former player of Nigerian descent, has brought to the side since taking over earlier this year. “Development is the focus,” the 43-year-old told African Football Media. “We started at a very low base because the team had not played many matches, so it was almost like a new start for everybody. There is a long way to go, but that is the challenge for the country, and the challenge for me as part of that process. It will be a long hard slog in that direction.”
Onuora got a first-hand glimpse of how far his team had to go when they were beaten 4-1 in a home qualifier by a promising Guinean side, after going a goal up in September. But a 1-0 win in Madagascar a month later has settled nerves a bit ahead of the resumption of qualifying next year, when the Ethiopians will travel to Nigeria in March.
“We have had some good results and some not so good results, but I think most neutrals would say that the trajectory is very much on the up.” Onuora said, pointing to this week's 2-1 friendly defeat to the reigning East and Central African champions Uganda as further proof.
“We lost that match, but we matched them stride for stride. Their coach was very complimentary about us. It gives us confidence for the African Nations Cup campaign. I am greatly encouraged to know that we are not far behind teams like that. I have a lot of young players who are just finding their feet in international football.”
When taking stock of his team's chances, Onuora pulls no punches about the goals. “We are in a very tough group,” he said. “In every qualifying campaign there is a group of death, and I think we are in it. We had a great result in Madagascar and we are still in the group picture. We travel to Nigeria in March where hopefully we will go with confidence and in good shape.”
Chasing a legacy
A journeyman striker in England's lower leagues, Onuora began picking up coaching experience at the end of his playing days in 2004, and he jumped at the chance to work in the international game. Despite the challenges of working in Ethiopia, he is determined to help mine the natural resources that he says already exist there. “Technically, Ethiopian players are very good,” he said. “They are fluid with the ball, imaginative and technically adept. In terms of growing as a football nation, they will have to develop other qualities as well to augment their natural abilities.”
One missing element in the chain of development is a large contingent of foreign-based players to bring back qualities and experience with them to the rest of the national team. It's a problem that Onuora is keen to help with, especially given his connections to Britain.
“I would love to see more players from Ethiopia going abroad,” he said. “I certainly think that there are some who are capable of playing abroad, they have just not had that exposure and the opportunity. I have good contacts, and that is something to look at over a period of time. But we have to be in the top 70, I think, for the work permit, so that is something that we have to challenge for, in order that they can move about and get that experience.”
The installation of an artificial pitch from the Goal Programme a year ago has helped as well, said Onuora, “because it rains a lot in Addis Ababa.” Ironic coming from someone born in Glasgow, but maybe that is why Onuora has found another home in east Africa. It is a place that he says he has grown very fond of.
"I tend to judge a country not by the resources it has, but by the warmth of its people," he explained. "And if that were the criteria, Ethiopians would be top of the league for me. They are very warm and friendly people, and they have shown that to me. I enjoy a challenge, and ultimately I want to leave a legacy here beyond the national team."