Two steps away from the World Cup: The extraordinary emergence of Ethiopia

Sewnet Bishaw's men are on the cusp of qualification for Brazil 2014, which only a short time ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Over the years, Africa has played its part in some wonderful soccer narratives. The emergence of Cameroon and Nigeria in the 1990s brought with it iconic images of Roger Milla dancing at a corner flag and Rashidi Yekini's unforgettable net-grabbing celebration as he scored the Super Eagles' first-ever World Cup goal in 1994. Senegal stunned then-world champion France on the opening day of the 2002 World Cup. Almost everyone - except perhaps Uruguay's Luis Suarez - felt sympathy for Ghana as it was eliminated in the quarterfinals from South Africa 2010. 

These are moments that are etched in the soccer consciousness and, in just 180 minutes of action, Ethiopia - for all its well-documented problems of the past - could well become an incredible part of that narrative by reaching its first World Cup when it faces Nigeria in a playoff.

A country recognized for middle- and long-distance runners such as Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia has seen its soccer journey also become a test of endurance. From being a major player in the foundation of soccer in post-colonial Africa and winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1962, it was confined to the soccer wilderness as poor government and civil war tore the country apart in the 1980s. The ensuing famine was one of the worst in the 20th century, during which it is believed at least a million people died and 8 million more were made destitute, prompting singer Bob Geldof to organize Live Aid to raise money for those suffering after a worldwide appeal for help.

However, nearly 30 years on, and while there are still underlying issues in the country, the situation is incomparable to the one that seemed so desperate previously - and Ethiopia's soccer team is also experiencing an upturn in fortunes. More than three decades after it last qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations, Ethiopia made its presence felt once more earlier in 2013 in South Africa. Two late penalites from Nigeria's Victor Moses ensured it was eliminated in the group stage, but it was a signal of intent by the Walya Antelopes.

Ethiopia's Emergence
1 A 1-0 victory back in 1993 over one of the best Nigeria sides of all time remains to date the only time Ethiopia have beaten the Super Eagles.
13 The Walya Antelopes topped their qualifying group and scored 13 goals, with Saladin Said and Getaneh Gibeto grabbing four goals each.
31 The number of years Ethiopia went without qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations until they did so this year.
37 Degu Debebe is the most capped player in the side with 37 appearances for his country.
93 Sewnet Bishaw's men are ranked 93rd in the Fifa ranking. Congo are 92nd while El Salvador are 94th.
"It was significant as the players, the fans and the nation had more belief about what they could do," former coach Iffy Onuora explained to Goal. "Then they had the World Cup qualifiers and the group they had [South Africa, Botswana and Central African Republic] was favorable. South Africa were the biggest team and once they navigated past them the rest were winnable, but I'm just delighted to sit back and watch it all unfold."

Former Huddersfield striker Onuora, 46, was Ethiopia's coach back in 2010 and oversaw five victories in his 11-game stint. A 4-0 defeat to Sunday's opponents soon spelled the end of his tenure, but his time spent in the East African country has left a lasting impression on him.

"It was a great experience but it wasn't without its challenges," he said. "When I went to Ethiopia for the first time, I marveled at the rawness of life there and the spirit and pride of the people and I just fell in love with it.

"I don't want to patronize people and say they don't have this and they don't have that; what they have is a spirit about them and a determination. It's inspiring really.

"Ethiopia being on the verge of Brazil 2014 for me is one of the best stories surrounding the World Cup recently. There's an argument to say they should have achieved and qualified for more tournaments with a population of 85 million, but when you put it in the context of the famine, war and other struggles, to get to where they are is really special."

The majority of the team is made up of players based in Ethiopia, playing for Saint George and Ethiopian Coffee, so they cannot boast the European-based stars such as Moses, Jon Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi or Ahmed Musa that Nigeria can call upon. That said, what they perhaps lack in world-class stars - Saladin Said is their best player - they make up for with a collective togetherness and indefatigable spirit.

"It will be Ethiopia's biggest game in their history," Onuora continued. "They've never qualified for a World Cup before and now they find themselves on the threshold of it. They're only 180 minutes away and against one of the big powers of African football, Nigeria, so it really doesn't get any bigger than this."

While Ethiopia will be considered the underdog in this matchup, home-field advantage could well prove to be important as the Addis Ababa pitch is at an altitude of some 2355 meters above sea level. The Super Eagles have also struggled against seemingly weaker opponents recently, drawing with Namibia, Malawi and Kenya in qualification. Meanwhile, Ethiopia's best result against Nigeria came in 1993, when the Super Eagles were ranked fifth in the world - a gentle reminder to Stephen Keshi's men that the playoff will be anything other than a formality.

For Onuora, born in Scotland to Nigerian parents, he acknowledges he is unsure who he will be rooting for in Sunday's encounter.

"I don't know whether it's a divided loyalty or a win-win situation," he said. "Obviously my parents' background is Nigerian as well as family and friends, but I've got a soft spot for Ethiopia and a lot of the players - some of which I brought through - are still involved and I still speak to them."

Soccer is often a great way for a country to portray itself positively. For Ethiopia, this is an opportunity to create a new set of memories - ones that its people can be proud of.