By Lolade Adewuyi in Addis Ababa
Ethioipia’s hopes of progressing to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil ahead of Nigeria are hinged on the broad shoulders of 24-year-old striker Saladin Said.
The Wadi Degla player has been in blistering form scoring four goals in the qualifying process so far, two more than injured strike partner Getaneh Kebede.
On Friday evening, the Walia Antelopes showed their reliance on Saladin as they trained the striker with aerial balls at the National Stadium in Addis Ababa.
Set to play from the wings, coach Sewnet Bishaw’s team worked with the big striker as the focal point ahead of their game with the Super Eagles.
“He is quick, he is sharp and mentally strong unlike many Ethiopian players,” Addis Ababa-based BBC journalist Betemariam Hailu told Goal. “And he thrives on through balls that are regularly supplied by the trio of midfielders Shimeles Bekele, Minyahil Teshone and Bahailu Assafa.”
The six-foot tall former St. George forward is described with words like “hero” and “role model” by locals who are finding new sports men to venerate following long years of domination by superstar marathon champions like Haile Gebrsellasie and Kenenisa Bekele.
Saladin’s rise to stardom has coincided with his country’s return to the international football stage after many years of underachievement.
The Walia Antelopes reached their first Africa Cup of Nations in 31 years last January powered by the determined play from players like him.
However, he failed to make an impact in South Africa as the East Africans did not win any of their group matches – they drew with Zambia and lost by six goals against Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
The reigning African champions are familiar with the striker. He scored both goals against them in a 2-2 draw the last time they met in Addis Ababa on the road towards the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
Thus far, he has scored four goals in the World Cup qualifiers and a total of 12 in 20 international matches, a big return by any standards.
Saladin moved to Lierse in Belgium post-Afcon but left after only five matches and one goal reportedly due to his dissatisfaction with the high taxation in Europe. Many of his countrymen think he should have stayed in order to make the move to a bigger European side and help improve the profile of Ethiopian players.
With the Antelopes on the cusp of an unprecedented World Cup place, a return to Europe sooner than later could be in the offing for Saladin, the hero of Addis Ababa.