One of the great stories of the last few years in African football has been the growth of Ethiopia's national team. Earlier this year, they qualified for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in over three decades and they are one result from potentially qualifying for their first-ever FIFA World Cup™. The man who has overseen this change and will lead the Walya Antelopes in Nigeria looking to overturn a 2-1 first leg deficit, is former biology teacher and student of football, Sewnet Bishaw.
Despite the home defeat a month ago to the Super Eagles, the coach is confident that the east Africans can turn things around in Nigeria and reach Brazil 2014. "Definitely, yes. The principle of the game is to win. We have seen the Nigerians, and the goals we gave away came from our own mistakes. We will try to correct those and face them in their country, and we hope to qualify there."
The Ethiopian secret
While they are undoubtedly underdogs against the five-time World Cup finalists, Ethiopia have overcome doubters every step of the way in qualifying. They were drawn into a tough group with South Africa, and after beating Bafana Bafana in their penultimate game and thinking they had advanced to the final preliminary round, they were docked three points from their victory against Botswana and had to do it all over again. Bishaw though says that they always believed in themselves. "In the very beginning we set ourselves a goal, which was to qualify for the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup. To achieve that goal we have had to work very hard and that was our plan. We are training every day and night to achieve our goal. We have 90 minutes more, and we will fight to the maximum. And I am confident we will qualify."
Bishaw was in charge of the team at the AFCON finals in South Africa earlier in the year, where the team achieved a credible draw against the defending champions Zambia but exited at the first hurdle. He says the reasons for Ethiopia's growth are not hard to find. "The only secret is to work hard and to make all the players think the same, for the good and strength of the team and for the team's unity. That is the only secret that we have here in Ethiopia."
To ensure that the future of football in the country remains bright, Bishaw says that work needs to be done with young players. "We need to work at the youth level and develop the most talented players. At the moment we are working hard with the current players and then in two or three years we should have many, many young talented players. If we then work with them, I am sure the strength of the national team will continue."
A teacher at heart
Passing on knowledge and wisdom has long been Bishaw's passion, and after graduating from university he became a biology teacher. The skills he acquired at that time still come in handy. "Being a teacher and a coach are one and the same, and that has helped me a lot. When I stopped teaching, I took many courses - at a local level, at CAF level and at FIFA level. I have been abroad for courses. So now my profession is no longer teaching in a school, but my life is teaching football."
Bishaw's interest in developing young footballers has seen him take charge of the national under-17 and under-19 teams, before taking over the senior team, with whom he won the regional CECAFA Cup in 2005. He then returned to club coaching before being called in to the national team again last year. Unlike many coaches, the 69-year-old does not lament the fact that all but two of his charges earn their living playing in Ethiopia. Far from it. "That is a huge advantage for us as it really helps team organisation. Whenever you want to work with the national team, you get them and you work with them. To combine them and to make them strong, that is the most important thing and it helps to have them all together here.
"To have half of them playing abroad makes it more difficult as they have their own style of play, and those who are playing inside the country have theirs, and to make those two teams into one team needs time. Our advantage is that all of them are playing in Addis and there is no problem to have them together for every training session. They know each other, they think as a unit, so this has been great support for the strength of our team."