By BENNO MUCHLER
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Less than a week before the most important match in its history, Ethiopia’s national soccer team trained on a wet, uneven field on the outskirts of the capital. Nearby, a woman hung her wash on a clothesline. Birds of prey circled overhead, and sometimes a plane flew past at low altitude, coming from the capital’s busy airport, which a few months ago added a connection to Rio de Janeiro.
The timing could not have been better. Ethiopia will face Nigeria on Sunday in the first leg of one of five home-and-home playoffs that will determine the five African teams in next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. A few years after it was barred from even attempting to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Ethiopia is two games from reaching the tournament for the first time.
“We have played against Nigeria many times,” Ethiopia’s coach, Sewnet Bishaw, said at a luxury hotel in the city center, where the team has been living as it prepares for the match. “Even though Nigeria is a big nation, a big country with huge, skillful and professional players, we’ve become very strong in the past few years.”
The African playoffs include many of the World Cup regulars — Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon — that have for years fed talent to Europe’s top clubs and leagues. The presence among them of Ethiopia, a persistent underdog that won its only African championship a half-century ago, is among the biggest surprises of the current qualifying cycle. But a string of good results, a rare bit of stability in its national federation and a focus on youth development have many in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, feeling as if a sleeping giant has been awakened.
Nigeria, the reigning continental champion, boasts stars like Liverpool’s Victor Moses and Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel. Ethiopia fields a roster made up almost entirely of players based domestically.
And as the team’s simple practice field attests, Ethiopian soccer still has far to go. In 2008, a power struggle inside the national federation led to its suspension by FIFA. As a consequence, Ethiopia was barred from qualifications for the last World Cup. This year, the fielding of an ineligible player in a World Cup qualifier against Botswana almost cost Ethiopia its chance at playing in Brazil.
The incident was partly caused by a federation official, Berhanu Kebede, who acknowledged he had failed to forward a communiqué by FIFA that had confirmed the player was ineligible, one of a series of similar problems in African qualifying this year.
Meshesha Wolde Denbel, a veteran local reporter, said the federation’s instability partly explained the team’s lack of success before this year. “The current federation has done a lot of positive things,” he said, “but I don’t think the basic issues have been addressed.”
Many officials are unprofessional, he said. More coaches need to be trained. Another issue is the lack of work at the grass-roots level. With about 40 percent of Ethiopia’s 80 million people under age 15, the country has a huge, largely untapped resource for creating the next generation of players and supporters.
“This is the time when players have hope,” said Kebede, the vice president of the Ethiopian Football Federation. “It used to be everybody wanted to run away.”
Many in Ethiopia still remember the team’s only title in the Africa Cup of Nations, in 1962. A military coup in 1974 was followed by years of terror, famine and poverty. National team players tried to escape whenever they had a chance, and as recently as 1998 the country did not even try to qualify for the World Cup.
Still very poor, Ethiopia has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and soccer has been a beneficiary. Among the many construction projects across the country are six new stadiums.
Whereas national players used to earn a few hundred Ethiopian birr — 19 birr are currently worth $1 — the Ethiopian soccer federation offered each player $111,000 for winning this year’s Africa Cup of Nations and $55,000 for reaching the final. (Money cannot paper over everything; Ethiopia failed to advance out of the first round, with one of its losses against Nigeria.)
The fact that only a handful of Ethiopian players compete abroad — midfielder Addis Hintsa plays in Sudan and striker Getaneh Kebede for the South African Premier Soccer League club Bidvest Wits — has in a way helped the team in its qualifying campaign. It has fostered a cohesion missing on many African teams and offered more time for the players to practice as a group, another rarity in Africa. That confidence has spread beyond the locker room.
Around Addis Ababa Stadium, where Sunday’s match against Nigeria will be held, fans seemed certain of victory. For weeks, the area has been a mess of traffic jams and mud related to the construction of the city’s new light railway line.
Hiruy Worku, a 46-year-old construction worker, sipped coffee in a cafe inside the outer walls of the stadium and predicted a 2-1 victory. “I’m very excited,” he said. “Winning is very important because it has been so long until we got that chance.”
Kelifa Haddi, 22, who washes cars between games of foosball, or table soccer, with friends, said: “It doesn’t matter to us football fans, who love football, if they don’t play as nicely as Barcelona. What matters to us is the result, and they had good results in the past.”
Preserving that momentum is the new priority. At Woizero Kalamework Turineh School here, Zerihun Taye trains dozens of boys under age 15. The school is one of 200 training projects in Ethiopia supported by the federation; the players come from schools in the district and train three times a week. But little about the work is easy.
“There is nothing comfortable about working here,” Taye said in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language. “I’ve been working eight years on this specific field here, and the school doesn’t seem to even want to level the field. Even the parts we’re using, we were the ones who prepared it.”
Taye said that he and his staff had five soccer balls to use in workouts, and that they had to find sponsors to buy the light blue training jerseys the players wear. But at the national level, for a change, there is hope.
The last time Ethiopia played Nigeria was at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Two penalties and a red card for Ethiopia goalkeeper Sisay Bancha led to a 2-0 defeat. Ethiopia finished at the bottom of its first-round group and was eliminated. Nevertheless, Bishaw, the coach, was optimistic about the coming matches.
“That was by mistake that they scored two penalties, because their players were very clever enough and professional and much more experienced than our players,” he said. “When you see the entire match, there was not any differences between Nigeria and our boys.”
Now a match at home Sunday and the return leg in Nigeria in November are all that stand between the Walia Antelopes, as the team is known, and a ticket to Brazil.
“In case we lose, that will not be the end of Ethiopian football,” Bishaw said. “We will learn from our mistakes, and we will try hard to be in the World Cup again.”