By Lolade Adewuyi in Addis Ababa
For a country like Ethiopia, football matches do not come bigger than Sunday’s game against Nigeria for a place among the 32 nations that will play at next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
A country known for its long distance running which has won it many Olympic medals, its football has not been as successful.
But all that is changing now as the country stands on the cusp of making it to its first ever World Cup. One hundred and eighty minutes of football remains for the Walia Antelopes – sometimes spelt Walya, big-horned endangered antelope specie that lives in the country’s mountains – and Brazil.
Sewnet Bishaw, 61, is the man that has ensured this resurgence of pride in the football team after years of dwelling in the backwaters of African football.
Winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in 1962 in a long forgotten four-team era, Ethiopia failed to qualify for the tournament for 31 years until South Africa 2013. There they drew against Zambia and lost by six goals to Burkina Faso and eventual winners Nigeria.
Bishaw says that tournament was a learning curve and their present position among the 10 African teams vying for five tickets to Brazil is a testament.
“We made silly mistakes, we scored an own-goal and everything went up. This was because of lack of concentration and inexperience. Now they have learned more. To be strong you have to face such type of tournaments and matches and learn from your mistakes,” Bishaw told journalists in Addis Ababa on Friday.
On Sunday, Bishaw comes face to face with one of those teams that gave his side a tough lesson on their return to the continental stage – Nigeria.
“Two years ago we played the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria, the result was 2-2. We faced Nigeria again in South Africa [this year] and they beat us 2-0,” he said.
“Everybody knows that Nigeria are the African champions. The time between our draw [in Addis Ababa] has been two years. With two years in football, you can make many improvements in your team. And you can change many flaws and rearrange the team to become a big football country like Nigeria.
“Within these two years, we have tried to bring more talented players from different regions and we now have a very strong team psychologically, physically and technically.
“Even though Nigeria is African champion, we give respect for that. We know that Nigeria is a great country with huge personalities and huge talented names playing abroad – most of them playing in the English Premier League and others - and are highly paid.
“Don’t forget that football is a game of eleven against eleven, it will be decided on the pitch only. Whatsoever quality you have, whatsoever personality you have, whatsoever preparation you did, the game will be decided on the pitch only, within the 90 minutes.
“So we have a great respect for Nigeria but the game will be decided on Sunday within the 90 minutes,” said Bishaw.
Sometimes confrontational, local journalists describe the former physical education teacher as a stern trainer. He has already achieved much with the Antelopes having won with them the regional CECAFA Cup title in his first spell as coach in 2005.
However, a place in the World Cup will be unprecedented and also cement his place among the great African coaches.
With the pressure of the game heightening, Bishaw refused to be sucked in.
“We’re not under any pressure,” he said. “We’re facing the biggest football nation in Africa, we’re trying to be big. A country striving to be big is helped by the government, the journalists and the people so there’s no pressure here.
“We’re ready to play the game against Nigeria and if we win after 90 minutes, we will go to face them in Nigeria and we will try to challenge them and qualify for the World Cup. This is our objective,” he said.
Failure to qualify will not spoil his legacy though. Having come this far, the sole team from East and southern Africa left in the qualifiers as well as being the least ranked, Ethiopia has definitely achieved much already.
“If we cannot achieve [a place in the World Cup], we will accept it and try to improve,” Bishaw said.
Follow Lolade Adewuyi's coverage in The Addis Diary