By Giles Goford BBC Sport
Ethiopia hold the dubious record of being runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations without winning a game or even scoring a goal.
That came at the inaugural tournament, held in 1957, after the Confederation of African Football was established by the Egyptian, Ethiopian, South African and Sudanese Football Associations.
Ethiopia received a bye into the final after South Africa were disqualified for refusing to send a multi-racial team, and the Walya Antelopes were then beaten 4-0 by Egypt in Khartoum.
Now, 31 years after their last appearance in the Finals, one of the founding fathers of the African game are back and aiming to make a big impact in South Africa.
“We are the pioneers, but we went backwards,” says the president of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF), Sahilu Gebremariam. “Now the whole nation is inspired again.
“Football is the most loved sport in Ethiopia. Being good at athletics builds our international image, but wherever you go – in schools, villages, or in the street – football is the most popular sport.”
The inspiration has come from a national side built on hard work and a team ethic. Ethiopia, who won the Cup of Nations in 1962, are ranked 110th in the world and 31st in Africa, and they qualified for South Africa by edging out both Benin and Sudan on away goals in qualification.
Head coach Sewnet Bishaw has been in charge since November 2011, but former national manager Iffy Onuora, who led the team between July 2010 and April 2011, says the signs of improvement were evident during his reign.
“I’m proud that I instilled some professionalism during my time there,” said the former Huddersfield, Gillingham and Swindon striker.
“I’m strong on organisation and team dynamics, and talking to the players it was clearly very different from what they were used to.
“I believe they saw the benefits and enjoyed it. Having seen the players close up, I felt there was raw talent to work with.”
The talent is almost all home based, from the club sides Dedebit, Defence and Saint George. Just one professional plays his club football outside Ethiopia – star striker Saladin Said plays in the Egyptian Premier League.
Onuora believes Ethiopia’s relative anonymity can help them spring a surprise in a group that contains holders Zambia, as well as Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
“Adane Girma is a brave striker who attacks crosses well, in the manner of a young Alan Shearer,” said Onuora. “Alula Girma is a quality full-back who wouldn’t look out of place in a Championship side in England and Shimelis Bekele is a little magician on the pitch in the manner of a classic number 10. He can play wide or behind a striker, and can see a pass in the manner that Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla can.”
Ethiopia’s world rankings
The players, having become national heroes through qualifying, do not want their journey to end in the group stage.
“We know Nigeria and Zambia are strong opponents, but they should not forget we qualified by beating Sudan, who played at the 2012 Cup of Nations,” said 27-year-old striker Adane Girma.
“In the past, we had problems in beating opponents in away matches. Now this is history – psychologically we have shown encouraging improvements, and as a result we also have a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.”
Ethiopia have never qualified for football’s biggest global tournament, but that is now a realistic prospect – just four years after the team were excluded from World Cup qualifying because the national football federation was sanctioned by Fifa for their non-compliance of a roadmap for progress.
“We now have a more modern way of managing our federation,” says EFF president Gebremariam. “All communities have come together. We currently don’t have any football idols, but it is the collective team spirit that is important. In the future we will create some stars.”
Onuora, born in Scotland and the scorer of more than 100 goals in English league football, has written a book on his time in charge, and will be keenly following the team’s progress in South Africa.
“Every League Two club in England would comfortably have better facilities than the Ethiopian national team in terms of pitch, ground staff, training facilities and kit,” the 45-year-old Onuora added.
“But I began to love that aspect of it. The ability to build a team out of nothing more than the raw material, the ability of the players, became my driving force.
“I had in mind the Cup of Nations in 2012, and more realistically 2013, and beyond that the World Cup. I believed we could do it.”
Onuora may have departed, but the Walya Antelopes have done it. The 1962 champions are back on the big stage and ready to draw on the pioneering spirit of their footballing forefathers.
History repeats itself
Ethiopia will have a sense of deja vu at the 2013 Cup of Nations, having been grouped with Zambia and Nigeria. In their last appearance in the Finals, in 1982, they also played Zambia (lost 1-0) and Nigeria (lost 3-0) as well as Algeria (drew 0-0)
Source: BBC Sport