Coach of the national team, Tom Saintfiet says Ethiopia might not be immediately associated with football, but the country has massive potential to develop in the game.
The names of Olympic gold medal-winning athletes like Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebreselassie and Kenenisa Bekele might enjoy worldwide recognition and represent sporting success for the east African nation but the sport Ethiopians most passionately follow is the global game.
“Of course the sport that Ethiopia is walmost famous for is athletics, but football is most definitely the number one here,” said the ambitious 38-year-old Belgian, who has taken on a short-term contract and arrived in Addis Ababa just ten days before the CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria at the start of the summer.
A long-time player and well-travelled coach, Saintfiet almost steered his new side to a shock win as the Walya Antelopes conceded just three minutes from time to play out a 2-2 draw with Nigeria, a result that was still a massive fillip for Ethiopia.
“It really is a football country, with a strong league that is professional, and passionate supporters. I watched a number of league games and the crowds at several matches were over 30,000. They have foreign players and foreign coaches and enormous potential,” enthused Saintfiet, whose past assignments have included the national coaching job in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“It is a country of some 80million people and there are some really good players. There is really a chance to take this country to a continental final competition, like the Nations Cup,” he said.
The draw with the highly fancied Nigerians has given Saintfiet a massive boost, but he has two more matches to come against Guinea and Madagascar before a decision is made on whether he will stay in the job. “It was a very strange feeling after the draw because before the game if you had offered anybody in Ethiopia a draw with Nigeria, they would have gladly accepted it, but after the game we all felt down because we knew how close we had come to beating one of the best teams in Africa,” said Saintfiet. “But the next day on the streets everyone was so proud of the result. We want now to take that one step further and do well in the next matches.”
With Ethiopia’s league season over at the end of June, Saintfiet has plans to take his squad to Namibia for extensive training in August to keep them in shape for the meeting with group leaders Guinea in Conakry in early September in their next Nations Cup qualifier. The Guineans are on ten points, while Nigeria are pushing hard on seven. Ethiopia have four, three of which came from a 1-0 victory at group bottom-dwellers Madagascar, who have a single point from an unlikely draw with Guinea. “We don’t have to be afraid of Guinea if we are well prepared. If we are physically ready, we’ll be able to get another good result,” said Saintfiet about the match at the start of September.
Ethiopia finish their 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations campaign at home to Madagascar, by which time the coach says a decision will be made on his future.