They came to South Africa in thousands and bestowed their unmistakable dynamism and energy on the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. It can be construed that the fans of Ethiopia’s Walyas Antelopes came to the tournament in droves because it was the first time that their country was playing in the continent’s biggest football showpiece in 31 years.
So they arrived – young and old, well, mostly young – men and women, wearing their bright green, yellow and red national colours. Some had faces painted, others had fancy hairstyles while some remained plain.
Of their women, former footballer turned pastor and analyst Idah Peterside blurted on television: “The Ethiopian women are beautiful, they’re like magnets.”
They sang songs in Amharic and chanted for their team. They were rambunctious, they challenged referees’ calls, they invaded the pitch, twice, yet they remained loyal till the end even as their side was eliminated in the group stage by Nigeria.
A group of Ethiopian fans also used the opportunity offered by the tournament to protest the incarceration of their leaders by the Ethiopian government. Mainly Muslims, they wore white jalabiyas and massed together separate from the larger group.
One thing I noticed about the Ethiopians, unlike many other journalists who complained every time their teams exposed some weakness, the east African journalists were calm and watchful in the media tribune. They did not come to this tournament expecting so much, only to enjoy the spectacle.
And what a spectacle the fans created for everyone who saw them.
They possessed a great deal of heart and were not afraid to show it. After the ugly incident against Zambia that forced Caf to fine their federation $10,000 for a pitch invasion and throwing of missiles, they held out a large banner on the stands that read: “We apologise for our behaviour but we love the game.” True spirit!
Losing the Ethiopians in this tournament is ending one big chapter for them. Coach Sewnet Bishaw told journalists that the team is in a new phase of life.
“We have opened a new chapter for this generation after 31 years. We scored our first goal at the Afcon in 37 years. We are trying to make our people happy,” he said.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi also hailed their style of play which involved passing around the ball very well, a style perfected on the training ground.
“If they keep the team together for the next five years, they will be a force to reckon with on the continent,” Keshi said.
Ethiopia will go back home looking ahead to the next Afcon and the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. A consistent football policy will keep them on the radar for a long time to come.
We need Ethiopia to play more often on the big stage, football cannot afford to miss their fans nor their beautiful women for another three decades.