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Ethiopia kicks off its Africa Cup of Nations campaign on January 9 in Cameroon. The national team is seeking to rally the country behind it as the Horn of Africa nation faces its worst crisis in decades.
Players with Ethiopia's national team sang and chanted together inside the dressing room just days before kicking off their Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) campaign on Sunday.
With the very existence of Ethiopia seemingly at stake amid political and ethnic chaos, the country's soccer team, nicknamed the Walyas, is pulling the country together again as it draws on players from all over Ethiopia, including those from the troubled regions of Tigray, Oromia and Amhara. As a result, the team hopes to bring joy to a troubled nation.
Expectations are always at fever pitch among Ethiopian fans whenever the national team plays. But this time around, the pressure has taken on an extra dimension. The squad is preparing to make its appearance at Africa's top tournament with Ethiopia still reeling under the tensions and divisions that have erupted into a civil war in the northern region of Tigray.
Ethiopia's footballing history is littered with extreme highs and lows on and off the pitch. Walyas coach Wubetu Abate is acutely aware of the current pressures felt by his team.
He regrets that some observers have chosen to highlight the differences in ethnicity and speculate why particular players are not in the squad.
"Some people at home would like to make links between the political troubles and the team," Wubetu told DW in an exclusive interview. He stressed that such utterances are only opinions and do not reflect the views within the squad itself.
"The team and I don't think like that. We feel strong, we are all Ethiopian and we are here to represent Ethiopia," he said.
The Ethiopians were one of the earliest teams to arrive in the host nation, Cameroon, getting there almost two weeks before the tournament's start. Wubetu said the atmosphere in their base camp in Yaounde is excellent.
"They sing together when they are together. When the players sing and move together, it is representative of Ethiopian unity," he said, emphasizing that although there are so many of them, they are united as one.
"We are in this tournament; we have come through a lot of difficulties. So, even being here [at the AFCON finals] is already a great victory. Being at this tournament is even more important, so that we can show off the image of Ethiopia."
The 33rd Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Walyas had hoped they could play several warmup matches, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented all but one of those games from taking place.
In that friendly match against Sudan, Ethiopia claimed an exciting 3-2 victory. The winning goal came from Amanuel Gebremichael, a player based in Tigray though born in Amhara, who had previously lost his place in the national team when the civil war began in late 2020.
"When the civil war broke out, the Ethiopian Football Federation gave the Tigrayan-based players the chance to move to clubs elsewhere in Ethiopia," Michael Legesse, a sports journalist at Soccer Ethiopia, told DW.
After Amanuel moved from the Tigrayan side Mekele to St. George club in Addis Ababa, Wubetu decided to recall the 22-year-old striker despite his underwhelming season in the Ethiopian Premier League. "Because of that, some questioned why he was brought back to the national side," said Michael Legesse.
Wubetu rejected the objections, and his gamble paid off when Amanuel scored twice against Sudan.
"Selection for Ethiopia's national team is not a quota system based on ethnicity. It is based on performance," said Michael. For him, the most decisive element in the squad is its togetherness.
Sewnet Bishaw, former coach of the Walyas and now executive member of the Ethiopian Football Federation, told DW that ethnic tensions have never had any significance in the team.
"When players represent Ethiopia, their ethnicity is of no importance at all. The players are not interested in ethnicity. Instead, they talk of unity and of advancing the team as far as possible," said Sewnet, recalling that while coach of the Ethiopian team, he had aimed to give joy to the Ethiopian people.
"I am not a politician. So these problems of ethnicity never existed within the team," he said.
Girma Sahle, the former national team defender who played for Ethiopia in the 1980s, agrees with Sewnet's assessment. He now lives in France and is part of the extensive Ethiopian diaspora.
"When the players see the Ethiopian flag in the stadium, they will be thinking about how they are representing 130 million Ethiopians," Girma told DW.
"It's not about whether I come from this region or that one. At this time, all Ethiopians, particularly those living outside of Ethiopia, have come together to support the country."
France-based Ethiopians have borrowed the French national football team's rallying cry "Allez les Bleus" — "Come on blues" — adapting it to "allez les Walyas!"
Ethiopia's football team is already playing its part in reconciliation.
This article was adapted by Chrispin Mwakideu
Edited by: Maximilian Merrill
Correction, January 8, 2022: This article has been updated to correct a typo in Michael Legesse's name. DW apologizes for the error