Walya Antelopes picking up the pace
© AFP

Ethiopia is Africa's second-most populous nation and one of its most ancient and inspirational cultures, but the country's national football team has long lagged behind the continent's big boys. Social, economic and natural conditions have all combined to keep the nation of almost 85-million people struggling, and the plight of the Walya Antelopes has followed suit.

Despite having never qualified for the FIFA World Cup™, Ethiopia were one of the early trend-setters in African football. They finished second of three teams in the first-ever CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1957, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of their sole continental triumph. However, as more African nations won independence and began to assert themselves on the football pitch, Ethiopia faded from the scene. Internal strife, lacking organisation and bad luck have seen them reach just two AFCON finals since 1970 with the last of them coming a full three decades from this year. Since then, the football-mad nation has had to make do with success in regional competitions, while an impressive predilection for long-distance running has usurped football's place in the international spotlight.

With a large pool of talent and well-supported clubs, Ethiopia have skirted around rebirth in the last decade, and they are currently riding the crest of a wave that could signal big things to come. A run of just one loss in their last 11 matches has seen them advance in qualifying for both the 2013 Cup of Nations and 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and in the case of the latter, they are actually atop Group A after two rounds of play ahead of South Africa, Botswana and Central African Republic. This form has paid off also in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where Ethiopia moved up 11 spots in July to 119th in the world and 34th in Africa.

A shocking lead and a huge chance

Aided by the installation of a vital artificial pitch from FIFA’s Goal Programme, Ethiopia’s impressive turnaround began with Anglo-Nigerian coach Iffy Onoura in 2010 when the Walyas beat Zambia en route to the last four of the CECAFA Cup (the Central and East African championship). It continued under Belgian Tom Saintfiet, who marshalled the side to an impressive 2-2 home draw with Nigeria in qualifying for the 2012 AFCON. And it seems to have come to fruition due to the tutelage of Sewnet Bishaw, a veteran Ethiopian coach, who took over the team in November. Having previously led the side to one of their better periods in the middle of the last decade, the 59-year-old has inspired his inexperienced team to punch well above their weight.

After brushing past Somalia in the first round of Brazil 2014 qualifying to reach the group stage, the side pulled off two shocking results. First, at the start of June, they drew with South Africa in Rustenburg 1-1, a stunner that cost Bafana Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane his job. A fortnight later, they drew against Benin 1-1 in Cotonou to complete an away-goals triumph over the heavily favoured Squirrels in 2013 AFCON qualifying. In between, Ethiopia beat in-form Central African Republic 2-0 in Addis Ababa, a result that leaves them top dogs in the standings with four points. Home and away contests next year with 2012 Cup of Nations qualifiers Botswana will go a long way to determining if the side can advance to the next round of the preliminaries and keep alive their hope of reaching a first FIFA World Cup.

At this point, a place in January’s continental championship would seem more realistic and within their grasp. They are just a home-and-away tie against Sudan away from that achievement, with the away opener in September a huge contest for the regional rivals. Quarter-finalists at the AFCON this year, Sudan will be favoured, but the two neighbours know each other very well. The pair have played 14 times in the last two decades with each claiming five wins to go along with four draws.

Key to Ethiopia’s success will be the striking duo of Said Saladin and Fikru Teferra. The latter is the side’s most well-known player, having spent time with clubs in Europe and South Africa and currently in Vietnam, but the former has been stealing the headlines. The Egypt-based forward has become something of a talisman for the team, scoring all three of the goals against South Africa and Central African Republic. Another forward, Adane Girma, was the goal-scoring hero against Benin, and he finished the most recent Ethiopian Premier League as top scorer with 23 goals for Saint George.