Is Football Becoming Ethiopia's Mark of Shame?
By Tsehai Alemayehu
May 4, 2018
Most readers have read about or have viewed the video of a disgraceful event which took place at what should have been a happy gathering of thousands of Ethiopians at a sporting event. I am referring to the ending of a match between two Ethiopian football teams in the city of Addis Ababa which has now gone viral.
It was triggered by a goal scored by the host team Defense against the visitors Adigrat University. For reasons that were never made clear in any of the reporting or video, Adigrat felt the goal should not be allowed. To lodge its complaint, most of the members of the Adigrat team run to the referee. But the referee apparently has a better sense of what is coming and retreated to the edge of the pitch, at which point the remaining Adigrat players on the pitch and others, including coaches from the sidelines, pursued the referee menacingly. And once they caught up with him, they gave him a terrible beating, with one of the team’s coaches taking the lead in punching him into submission.
No one from the Adigrat or the Defense teams tried to break up the menacing mob descending on the poor man whose only fault was just doing his job to the best of his ability. The police who were on duty throughout the stadium took their sweet time but eventually came to the rescue of the referee along with the side judges working the game.
I am not writing to catch you up with the news. This story was covered more than any other recent Ethiopian news item and I suspect that most who read this piece have seen the coverage. I am writing because I know that what transpired in that stadium and what followed from officialdom in Addis and Adigrat is emblematic of what has gone wrong in modern day Ethiopia. The feeling of impunity exhibited by the players and coaches of Adigrat, the absence of an appropriate security plan and the unwillingness of the football federation to hold the players, the coaches and its members accountable for their actions when things go well and things fall apart all point to the entrenched problems in sports and in Ethiopian life at large. I believe that this episode holds the potential for Ethiopian football to finally come to grips with how it has become the shame of a nation when it had the chance to be an organization which could bring all one hundred million of us together, proud that we can develop and stage first class teams which can make us proud even in loss.
Let me first address what this told us about sportsmanship in Ethiopian football. Those Adigrat players and their coaching staff obviously believed that what matters is winning regardless how they win. If they could not win on the pitch, they would win by forcing the referee to disallow a goal the other side had earned. And this seems to be in line with the ethical standards of the Ethiopian Football Federation. After all we also heard this week that the organizers of the CECAFA U-17 tournament found out three of the Ethiopian players who took part in a game against Somalia were actually over 17 years old and ineligible to take part. Ethiopia forfeited the victory it secured by cheating, the three players were sent home and the Ethiopian Football Federation was fined $5,000 USD for violating CECAF’s spirit of sportsmanship. Just like what happened a few years back when Ethiopia failed to send the women’s football team which had secured a spot in the world cup or Olympic games because someone in the federation did not acknowledge and accept the invitation on time, I fear no one, not the Federation, not the coaches, no one will be held accountable for this international scandal either.
Although I hope we have not heard the end on how this is eventually addressed, what we heard as the first corrective measures taken against the Adigrat football club, the players and the coaches who piled on that defenseless referee is disheartening. It was reported that the Ethiopian Football Federation suspended the Ethiopian Premier League in response. The entire league suspended for the misdeeds of one team. This has probably happened during other matches involving other teams. Even so, if this is not a case of collective punishment, I don’t know what is. Why suspend the entire league for the misdeeds of one team? What is the lesson to be drawn hear? Beat up an opposing player or a referee, you will do no worse that every player in the league?
Over the last couple of years, footballers playing in the Ethiopian premier league have been making real money…by Ethiopian standards, that is. The average pay is now in the neighborhood of Br. 100,000.00 per month, with many making nearly twice that much. And so a one year or even a half-year suspension without pay of the five or six players and coaches who actually touched the referee could be a valuable instruction on sportsmanship. But so far, those who chased a man around the stadium running for his life were suspended along with every player in the league.
Here is the other thing that is bothersome about this event. While I can only speculate about the specific policies of the Ethiopian Football Federation which will apply in this case, I know that beating up a person for any reason, let alone for doing his job, is illegal under Ethiopian criminal law and under the statutes of the City of Addis. The Ethiopian government is not known for being bashful about detaining people on the flimsiest of pretexts. So, I wonder why the police on site were so circumspect? Why hasn’t the attorney general filed assault charges against the perpetrators? Why hasn’t the command post taken up these criminals for inciting violence and disturbing the peace at a large gathering? We have a stadium full of witnesses. Heck, we have several million people worldwide who can testify as to what happened. So, why the silence in this case?
We know this is not the first time this team and its fans have assaulted referees and visiting teams. Might it not be an opportune time to teach this team and every team in the league the meaning and virtues of sportsmanship? Isn’t this an opportune time to impress on all young people why everyone needs to be mindful of commonsense laws and be mindful of the wellbeing of fellow humans? This event provides the criminal justice system which has deservedly lost the confidence and support of so many Ethiopians with an opportunity to standup for the law and for that man who was chased like a dog around a stadium full of cheering fans. If the league and the judicial system allow this episode to be swept under the rug, then we will return to similarly ugly events in our sporting life in the not too distant future.
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