The excitement of a positive start to their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign has Ethiopia believing they could return to the glory days when they were one of the continent’s dominant teams. Past winners of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, albeit almost 50 years ago, the east Africans have slid down the rankings in recent years, and being ranked at 136 in the world they were forced to participate this month in the first phase of African qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.
But despite a surprising scoreless first leg, the ‘Walyas’ successfully negotiated the opening hurdle, beating Somalia 5-0 in the second leg and on aggregate, and they now look forward to the challenge of the second phase where they will be joined by the big boys of the continent. In a challenging Group A, which starts next June, the Ethiopians will be faced by 2010 World Cup hosts South Africa, 2012 Cup of Nations qualifying surprises Botswana and the massively improved Central African Republic.
For the team’s most experienced player, striker Fikru Teferra, the current preliminary cycle presents a window of great opportunity. Ethiopia's group, says the 25 year old, will not be easy to navigate, but it does offer the national team an outside hope of advancing to the final stage of play-off matches at the end of 2013. “I think we have a very good chance to qualify for the last round of qualifiers and go onto the World Cup,” said the optimistic forward, who is a rare east African to have played professionally in Europe after stints in the Czech Republic, Finland and in South Africa.
“I think it is going to be a very good competition between some evenly balanced teams,” he said, explaining that Ethiopia have not had better odds to make major progress in recent qualifying competitions, because they have invariably been grouped with some of the continent’s heavyweights. However, this time around the mood is positive, both within the team and across the nation. “Our federation has told us a lot about their plans to take this campaign very seriously, and the players are holding out a lot of hope. Our hope is to do better with each game we play,” explained the athletic forward.
Attitude and good start are vital
Included in those plans is the possibility of appointing a new foreign coach. Anglo-Nigerian Iffy Onoura and the Belgian Tom Saintfiet have recently been in charge of the national side, but Sewnet Bishaw returned to the post to take charge of the two matches against Somalia. The key, says Teferra, will be the opening Group A game on the first weekend in June against South Africa, which Teferra is well acquainted with. Up until May he was on the books of South African club SuperSport United, before a short spell in Finland with KuPS. “We are similar style to South Africa, physically and in the way we play. For me personally it is going to be a real thrill. South Africa is my second home and I’m going back there now to see if I can get a new club from January onwards,” he said. “For [Ethiopia] it will be a lot about the mental side and believing we can do it,” he added.
Along with Salahedin Said, who plays at Wadi Degla in Egypt, Teferra is the only foreign-based player, which he says does present a burden. “People do expect a lot of things from me, many things that I cannot change,” he explained. “I have to remind them that football is a game of 11 players not just one. But I do feel that I can assist the team with my experience from playing in other countries, especially in training and preparing. I don’t really mind the pressure on me. If I can do it, I’ll do it.”