One of Africa’s earliest champions, Ethiopia have been far from recreating that kind of achievement for many decades. But there is a wind of optimism on the country’s football pitches after the Walya Antelopes blitzed past neighbours Somalia 5-0 in the opening round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying. Victory in that tie saw the 1962 continental kings qualify for the group stage, which begins on Sunday with a daunting trip to South Africa.
The second-most populous country on the continent, Ethiopia are sleeping giants in the world of sport, but Bafana Bafana are recognised powers in need of a win, so few are holding out much hope for the east Africans. However, there are few who know the Ethiopian set-up as well as veteran coach Sewnet Bishaw, who is back in charge of the team after guiding them for a few years in the 2000s. Bishaw was happy to overcome the Somalia hurdle despite rumbles after a scoreless first leg. “I really appreciated our effort. Our formula was right, we qualified, and that's the most important thing," he said.
Bishaw knows that Group A will be a non-stop challenge for his team even after this weekend. The following Sunday they host a much-improved Central African Republic and next spring is a test against CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2012 qualifiers Botswana. On 15 June, they also have the second leg of their first round qualifying tie for the 2013 AFCON finals against Benin. The first leg ended up scoreless in Addis Ababa, which leaves the visitors well-placed to sneak an away goal against the highly regarded Squirrels.
This week Bishaw insisted that Ethiopia were not overly concerned about this weekend's challenge in Rustenburg, no matter how over-matched they might seem. “We never have a different formula, whether the opponent is Brazil or Somalia, home or away, our main goal is to create a competent team,” he explained. “In international football, Ethiopia has been called an underdog for several years. This has made the players gloomy and always puts their mental readiness in jeopardy. We have been working hard to take measures to help them believe they can get something out of this game. Fortunately, the players have responded impressively.”
Proving Pienaar right
Bishaw says that Ethiopians are familiar with Bafana Bafana’s players because of the last FIFA World Cup and they watch the South African Premier League matches on television. But he’s careful to point out that the Group A challenge will be a fresh challenge on the day. “We are focused on how [South Africa] will play on the pitch on Sunday rather than them in the past. Tactically, we need to be flexible and pragmatic in our approach by observing the behaviour of our opponents on the pitch.”
The coach knows there is a mountain to climb, but he is determined to keep his side positive and believing in the possibility of an upset. “We know Bafana Bafana started their preparations with a full contingent of lots of players in a camp long before us, and we know they called up their European-based players for this fixture. But we can’t forget that it will be 11 against 11 on the pitch.”
Despite organisational challenges, Bishaw says that his team have been working hard in preparations this week. “Attitude!” he said when asked about the most important factor in the looming match. “That, surely, can make a difference. Self-belief is an essential factor here, and I have noticed significant progress in our mental ability to confront any team away from home. I read that Bafana Bafana captain Steven Pienaar said recently that ‘Ethiopians are not amateurs’ and I couldn't agree more!”