Ethiopia’s steady rise in African football could take a further step forward this weekend when they play away to Botswana in a vital 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
Known as the ‘Walia Antelopes’, Ethiopia’s national team is sitting pretty at the top of Group A in the second phase of African zone qualifiers for next year’s showpiece event in Brazil.
Unbeaten after three matches, Ethiopia are two points clear of second-placed South Africa and will have the advantage of hosting Bafana Bafana later this month in a crunch match in Addis Ababa that could be decisive in determining who tops the pool and progresses into the final round of qualifying.
The East Africans have never qualified for the World Cup before, but Brazil 2014 could be the tournament for which that dry run is finally broken.
By rights Ethiopia should be amongst the continent’s football elite: they were founding members (alongside Egypt, Sudan and South Africa) of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in early 1957 and took part in the inaugural Africa Cup of Nations later that same year.
They then hosted and won the tournament in 1962, but from 1976 until earlier this year they failed to make a return to the continental championship, slipping back from the possible status of giants to become nothing more than also-rans.
Finally, at the 2013 AFCON in South Africa, they returned to the tournament proper for the first time in over three decades, the clearest sign that their football is on the rise and ready to live up to their proud heritage as a leader of the sport on the continent.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw, who has been at the heart of Ethiopia’s resurgence, saw his side finish bottom of a tough group (it featured reigning champions Zambia, as well as the eventual champions and runners-up, Nigeria and Burkina Faso respectively) at the AFCON.
But as a tentative feel of the turbulent waters of top international tournament football, it was still a decisive step forward and confirmation that the ‘Walia Antelopes’ are on the right path.
Further ratification of this arrived recently with the impressive showing of top club Saint George, who progressed into the group phase of the CAF Confederation Cup after an away goals triumph over tough Egyptian opponents ENPPI. In the process, they became the first Ethiopian side to reach the group stages of an African club competition.