How Soccer Explains Ethiopia

ethiopia nationalism
Written by Mohammed A

(OPride) Ethiopia has a rich and complicated history, one that is best described as “a contested terrain.” If this landlocked Horn of Africa country is known for anything though, soccer surely isn’t one of them. But if you ask about an African country known for recurrent famine, long distance runners, beautiful women, and ‘cute’ and adoptable babies at your Friday night trivia game, you may actually get the right answer.

After 31 years of failed bids, Ethiopia finally returned to the Africa Cup of Nations in Jan. 2013. It was ejected at the group stage, but not before making an unmistakable mark on the continent’s football, traditionally dominated by North and West Africa. Ethiopia’s young and inexperienced squad deserves admiration not only for an impressive tie against Zambia, holding the defending champs at bay with 10-men, but more importantly for playing a world-class game on their very first international debut.

One of the memorable moments of their three-game induction came when Zambia scored their first goal. Disgusted by what they saw as unfair refereeing, Team Ethiopia’s riveted fans began hurling vuvuzelas and water bottles at celebrating Chipololoplo players. For many unassuming and spirited soccer enthusiasts, the fans gutted reaction meant nothing more than passion-on-steroids (or maybe a blend of nationalism).

After the Confederation of African Football (CAF) slapped Ethiopia with a fine of $10,000, the Ethiopian fans were much more reflective on the final game. “We apologize for our behavior, but we love the game” read one of their banners. If Team Ethiopia’s spectacular performance won over skeptics who said East Africans couldn’t play soccer, the beauty of Ethiopian women also caught the attention of several sports journalists – at least those who have only seen starving Ethiopian children on TV before.

Then there was also that embarrassing moment when the state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV) carried the game live without paying for broadcasting rights.

These are but highlights from events already covered in the mainstream media. However, there were so many other subtleties that went unreported.

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic, multi-nation and multi-religious state–not unlike many African states but in fact, more so. This was evident from the composition of Team Ethiopia’s players. The diversity of the players, which included Oromo, Tigrean, Amhara, Southern, and Gurage and both Christian and Muslim players represented the diversity of Ethiopia. Likewise, their fans also came from similarly assorted, if not more, persuasions. But they all cheered for the same team–a rarity among the vast Ethiopian diaspora.

In the United States, Oromo and “Ethiopian” communities each have their own soccer federations and annual tournaments. Under the rules of the Oromo Soccer Federation of North America (OSFNA), a player’s membership in the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (ESFNA) is cause for automatic disqualification. At each of these tournaments, one can observe fans and players adorned in the colors and flags of their respective communities. It is unlikely for one to spot an Ethiopian flag at an OSFNA sponsored tournament.

During the summer 2012 London Olympics, various Horn of Africa diaspora communities cheered for runners of Ethiopian origin as they fiercely debated the identity of the runners, especially those who hail from the Oromia region. The photographs of the runners photoshopped and plastered around the web, spoke volumes about the contested nature of identity and belonging in the Ethiopian diaspora. Politics and sports are clearly inseparable.

In contrast, during the AFCON games in South Africa, the mood was mellower. In the United States, many Oromo youth made clear through their Facebook posts that they were taking time off from politics to support “the players” and enjoy the game.

“This is sport not politics,” wrote one star player of OSFNA.

Maybe or maybe not.

But the parallel between sports and identity is not unique to Ethiopia. In his book How Soccer Explains the World, American journalist Franklin Foer writes about the crude hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism that often creeps up to the center of many soccer stadiums around the world – from Serbia and Scotland to Iran and Israel.

In his criticism of globalization, Foer writes, “humans crave identifying with a group. It is an unavoidable, immemorial, and hardwired instinct…to deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity.” It’s this sense of group identity – an idea that Foer depicts as “clannish” – that was vividly on display at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, South Africa.

For those who feel that the image of Ethiopia projected at international stage does not represent them, the very idea of “rooting for Team Ethiopia” was revolting. That is why Ethiopian dissidents used the AFCON events to shed light on the many political grievances in their country and to dispel the myth of monolithic Ethiopia, even if it’s symbolic.

For example, the team’s Muslim fans wore white caps and tied their hands together to protest the arrest of their leaders back home. Echoing a similar sentiment that has been taking shape in the country over the last year, the crowd chanted in Amharic, “Dimtsachin Yisema”, let our voices be heard.
The Oromo, Ethiopia’s politically marginalized majority, also made similar protests. Seated opposite from the “Ethiopian” fans – immediately behind the goalie for each game – they waved the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) flag, a de facto Oromo flag. Founded in 1973 to fight for the advancement of Oromo rights, the OLF is outlawed in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s one-party regime, EPRDF, in power for more than two decades, considers support for the OLF an act of treason. Last September, Ethiopian security forces arrested some 200 Oromo activists, among other reasons, for wearing traditional outfits adorned with the OLF flag.

If EPRDF ruled South Africa, none of the OLF-flag waving fans of Team Ethiopia would have been allowed into the stadium or back safely to their abodes. In fact, attempts by Ethiopian officials in South Africa to ban the OLF flag from the football stadium failed, according to the activists. This was not lost on Oromo activists who planned for months to use the opportunity to have the images of their flag broadcast around the world. According to reports, some hid the flag in their pockets and purses to enter the field while others wore it as headbands. There is no doubt that their act created a major dilemma for ETV folks. The state-run ETV had no choice but to broadcast the rare images of OLF flag to sport fans back home.
Not to be outdone, the Tigrean-dominated Ethiopian government had its own plan too. According to the Horn Times, it sought to use the stage to lionize the late premier Meles Zenawi. The local embassy’s efforts to distribute free t-shirts embossed with Zenawi’s photo to Team Ethiopia fans was thwarted by Ethiopian community leaders in South Africa, who alerted CAF officials, while also warning fellow Ethiopians to refuse and protest against the initiative.

On the cyber sphere, many non-Oromo diaspora Ethiopians hushed about the “politicization” of the sport. They were discomforted by pictures that beamed from South Africa that contradicted the view of Ethiopia and Ethiopians they made in their own image.

Denying Ethiopia’s diversity is to its detriment, and hiding its diversity will not fix its many complex political problems. Times have changed – nothing stays hidden in the age of runaway globalization. What other evidence do we need to come to terms with the fact that there is no monolithic Ethiopian identity? Its identity is the many colors of the rainbow, as displayed in South Africa, that make up Ethiopia, for better or for worse.

Both Oromo nationalism and the question of religious freedom by Muslims in Ethiopia have reached a critical stage. The ideal way to deal with both is not by denying their existence or distorting their demands, but rather by understanding their grievances, listening to each other, and initiating cross-sectional dialogue aimed at finding commonalities – not by simply “othering” and demonizing those that one disagrees with.

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About the author

Mohammed A

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He's the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia.

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