In the beginning there were only three; Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. In 1957 the African Cup of Nations was held at the Municipal Stadium in Khartoum, Sudan. In the final, Egypt beat Ethiopia 4-0, winning the first-ever African Cup of Nations.
In 1962, the games were held in Ethiopia, and the host nation beat Egypt 4-2 in the final and became the African champions. Ethiopia went on to participate in six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments before being hit by an unprecedented qualification drought, until now.
When Ethiopia soundly defeated Sudan to qualify for the 2013 tournament after a 31 year absence, a breath of fresh air swept through the nation letting people have faith once again in the National Team. The day we qualified was a bigger day than when we won gold at the Olympics, and why wouldn’t it be? It is after three long decades that our generation got to witness that there is still hope for us in the football arena after all.
Going back in time, when the first African Cup of Nations games were held in 1957 or when Ethiopian won the championship in 1962, it makes me wonder what the reactions were like in those times. It was a time when colonialism was deeply rooted on the continent, which was one of the reasons why so many countries were not able to participate in the games initially. South Africa was due to play in the first African Cup of Nations, but couldn’t because of Ethiopia’s objections to its system of apartheid.
Who were the players then? Who were Mengistu Worku, Luciano Vassalo and Girma Tekle? What I know about these three players is that they scored 8 goals altogether, leading Ethiopia to victory in 1962. This week on Monday, Ethiopia had its first game of the African Cup of Nations 2013; it played against Zambia, a country that took the last Cup after winning the penalty shootout against Cote D’Ivoire, who was the tournament favourites. The game ended with a 1-1 draw, a pretty good start for us. We even could have won the game if we hadn’t missed the penalty awarded to us. The ultimate satisfaction was to observe the pundits and the other teams sit up and take notice for the first time, to feel concern and apprehension, and that this time round, they won’t be dealing with patsies. The ten-man squad displayed such tenacity, confidence and style in their play that it took everybody by surprise, not least the Zambians. The end of the match on Monday night was marked by the honking of car horns everywhere and people shouting and dancing with sheer joy here in Addis, and everywhere in Ethiopia. For somebody who didn’t watch the game, the people’s reaction would have led that somebody to believe we had actually won the game. That was how hard people were celebrating the tie.
What was the celebration like back in 1962 when we actually won the tournament and took the title? The thought has never crossed my mind before but now I believe it is on most people’s minds. Sure, then it was only a few nations playing, but the significance is just the same. How did Ethiopians feel at the time and in what fashion did they celebrate?
We seem to have forgotten our contribution to this tournament; we seem to have become oblivious to the fact that we have seen glory and victory many years back. Athletics is one area we leaned on to help keep us in the spot light, internationally. We mention Abebe Bikila, a deserving lord of athletics, who is an inspiration for millions of athletes in Ethiopia, as well as around the world. His banner was picked up by super hero athletes who are too numerous to mention, both in men and women athletics. It has not been the same for football, where there aren’t enough heroes [with the exception of Yidnekachew Tessema and Mengistu Worku, of course] in Ethiopian football that are talked about, emulated frequently or inspire young players; we seem to take to the European leagues to look for those heroes.
Somehow, we lost faith in the Ethiopian National Football team because, over and over, time seemed to say that they were not good enough to compete on the international stage. If I had a penny for each time I have heard somebody say Ethiopia only knows how to run not play football, let’s just say I would be in South Africa right now speculating the outcome of the next game Ethiopia will play against Burkina Faso, because I would certainly have been able to afford it.
We haven’t been proud of Ethiopian football for a long time, and we don’t demand more from it, because we didn’t have any expectations. Therefore, it is no wonder why we have been absent from the African Cup for so long.
Now, it seems as if we have woken up from a trance and realized that we can excel, not only in athletics but also in football. This renewed spirit that is hovering over the nation, I guarantee you, will last a long time. Our unmistakable Ethiopian pride will not let us forget that we were able to return to the African Cup of Nations and performed ably with only ten men on the field on our first game; even if we don’t go far in this competition, we would still celebrate the fact that we were a part of it for years to come.
The funny thing about history is that it has a way of repeating itself. Ethiopia made history in 1962, and it still remains to be seen if we will be able to do it again, maybe not now or in the next one, but it has inspired in me and others that it will not be another three decades before we bring the Cup home.
We should never forget our past glories and past champions as we step into the future. We should look back to our greatness to find greatness once again.