A land of contrasts
By Matt Rowson
Addis Ababa. Capital of Ethiopia. Roughly two and a half million people reside here in a city that quivers uncertainly between the most distant extremes. A little over ten years ago, Ethiopia was a communist state, Lenin's statue reverentially on street corners. Now, following 1990's revolution, Ethiopia attempts to embrace capitalism and the statues are long gone. Many of the city's people are poor...as many as seventy-five percent rumoured to be of no fixed abode. In contrast, the expensive five-star hotels at the city's centre are the very height of luxury by anyone's standards.
Daniel Etubay and Getachew Zenebe are both in their twenties, and have lived in Addis all their lives. They are my guides through the previously uncharted waters of football in Ethiopia. Daniel supports Manchester United. Getachew favours Arsenal.
There is, naturally, a domestic league in Ethiopia. Annoyingly, the season begins a week after my return to England. Many of the fourteen clubs are named after their chief sponsors, although one doubts whether the St.George's brewery fork out as much for the christening of Addis' top team as Vodafone, Sega or Carlsberg have in this country.
Internationally, Ethiopia make little impression; Zambia ended their interest in the African Nations Cup at the earliest opportunity, Burkina Faso have already eliminated them from the 2002 World Cup. In each instance, proud capacity crowds of twenty-five thousand at the Addis stadium contributed to Ethiopian victories in the home legs of the knockout preliminaries, in neither case was the cushion sufficient.
In the face of limited international success and a low domestic standard, interest in European leagues, particularly English football, flourishes. "Your football is more pleasing," explains Getachew quietly. Ethiopian television only boasts two channels, one of which has been off the ground for a fortnight, neither of which begin broadcasting until the early evening. Nonetheless, screen coverage of the Premiership far exceeds what we enjoy on terrestrial television in this country, with all of Sky's games shown live and the week's Premiership goals squeezed twice into the schedule.
On Addis' chaotic streets, the interest in our league is equally evident. From the backs of lethal taxicabs, which bounce over potholes and dodge the frequent incursions of laden donkeys and indolent cattle on the unmarked roads, stare the faces of Ginola, Beckham, Owen. The occasional football shirts are United, Arsenal, Juventus and Milan, if rarely the most recent models; St.George's yellow and red is notable by its absence. Most peculiarly, a salesman in the enormous Merkato market sports a much faded version of the halved Denmark shirt from Mexico '86, with the bullish Preben Elkjaer's name on his shoulders. The resemblance isn't obvious.
Five hundred miles north of Addis lies Lalibela, scene of the so-called eighth wonder of the world, eight-hundred year old churches carved out of the mountainside that take the breath away. As the view out of the window of the bouncing van from the airport reveals, however, there is also tearful poverty here. The people aren't just poor, they have nothing and whereas much of Ethiopia is lush and green, the terrain around here is rocky, barren and infertile. Even here, there is football...the aid vans are awaited alongside the suitably barren village pitch.
In the absence of any income beyond the vans, needs must and the children speak almost perfect English. Each Birr that is coaxed out of us is greeted with unrestrained, gushing gratitude. One Birr is worth around 8p.
On the television in the hotel, the UEFA Cup highlights. Chelsea's millionaires are playing St.Gallen. In a land of contrasts, this presents the starkest of all.