The Power of Football
What is in football that renders it a magical power to grip the imagination of a whole population?
Last Tuesday when the last whistle was blown by the referee, thus proclaiming Mekelle Football Team as winners of the Qualifier match that was held in Dire Dawa town, Mekelle town stood on its tips. Football is one of the few things that create unity across the whole population, from the youngest school child to the elderly citizens, ordinary to highly educated intellectuals. The victory of Mekelle town football team has electrified the population of the city. I have not seen in many years, such euphoria and excitement in so many people at the same time. It seems that football is especially instrumental in motivating and inspiring young people.
One of the childhood events I vividly remember are the top football teams, matches and players of the town. Back then the football teams of the A-group were Enderta, Taidel, Welwalo, Messebo, Negade, Police, Wer’esa, and Abraha We Atsbeha. Teams like Enderta and Taidel were at the top of the ladder and the ‘cut-throat’ competitors for the trophy award of the year. But during the era I followed the teams, usually Enderta were the dominant team. The top players of the time were Alemseged Gebru (from Enderta), whose stylistic play, elegant sportsman body structure, and critical ‘life saver’ goal scorings made him by far the symbol of the then football career of the town. Tadesse Berhe (also from Enderta) was what they call ‘libro’ who acted as a courageous defender of his team. Afeworki was the famous goalkeeper of Enderta football team who could save any ball be it on ground or in air. The three of them were the rock foundation and pillars of Enderta Football Team. The team leader of Enderta was ‘Hakim’ G/Kidan who had a pharmacy at what is now called Hawzen Adebabay. During that time he was a healer, in his own right, to members of the community from various ailments.
On the other hand, the Patron of Taidel was Prince Mengesha Seyoum the then Governor of Tigrai region. I came to know later that he was also player of the team during the earlier periods of its formation. Other notable players of Taidel were Kiros (Newihk), Kiros (Mahkresha), Asmelash Alemayehu. From later generation players were Tsegabirhan Hailu & Emru in Enderta and Ahmed Shifa in Taidel. After the eruption of the revolution of 1974, football was severely weakened for the attention of the people and government was totally shifted to the political process that was unfolding then in the country. Now again after so many years, football comes back as an exciting sports activity in the region and the country in general. It seems that football thrives only in a stable and economically flourishing country. In the meantime, the role of TV program shows of The English Premier League (including the commentators) in motivating and entertaining our society cannot be overemphasized.
I remember during the earlier period, a team called ‘Embasoira’ had come from Eritrea for friendly match with Tigrai regional team. It was then that we came to know that football was not only a local pastime but an art of international stature. Players like Yemane of Embasoira were so conversant with the ball that it seemed to be part of their body system, being wired to and commanded by their central nervous system. Incidentally, I came to learn later on that players from Eritrea used to be significant and decisive players of the Ethiopian national football team. From later generation players, during the CECAFA Tournament in 1987, there were notable decisive players from Eritrea. The bold & courageous Negash Tekhlit used to uplift and motivate the spirit of his team. The confident & towering presence of Amanuel Eyasu gave solid backing to the team. The attacking skills of G/Medhin Haile (from Tigrai) gave a winning edge to the Ethiopian side. In a similar tone, Tsegai Hailu and Tsegai K/Mariam were contemporaries of G/Medhin Haile from Tigrai region who have also their footprints in the regional and national football development process.
When football was starting to revive in Tigrai region, the teams were sponsored by companies like Guna and Trans Ethiopia. Now the teams are organized on the basis of cities. This gives a broad base and connects the teams to the people. Coach Abraha T/Haimanot used to say that teams should belong to, be connected to, and be supported by the populace.
At the country level leadership, H.E. Yidnekachew Tessema is the one who has worked hard to establish the institution in Ethiopia. His passion for football was unparalleled. I used to enjoy his interviews whereby his responses were direct, intense and enlightening. He had a fighting spirit in the international forum to get recognition and better place for the African football. He was nicknamed ‘The Rock of Gibraltar’ as a note of his unyielding spirit. One of the rare books I read on football was written by H.E. Yidnekachew Tessema. Its Amharic title was ‘Ke Listro Yekuas Negus’ which literally translates as ‘From Shoe Shiner to King of Football’. It was centered on the life story of Pélè, and gives detail insight about what football is. Much as Pélè is the embodiment of what football is, through his life story we are guided to know the actions, myths, superstitions and powers of the sport itself. The book forms the foundations of my thinking on football.
So what are the reasons for football to be so powerful? The following points are attempts to explain the sources of the power of football:
- It gives sense of belonging to a group when you are a supporter of a certain team. Belongingness is one of the fundamental needs of an individual human being. Thus it creates intimacy and emotionality as it forms one of the cornerstones upon which the individual defines his identity.
- The football play process itself serves as model and reflection to our real life in the society. In football you have your team and team mates, you have an objective (to score a goal and win) and to meet your objective you need to have a technique (strategy) to follow and tactics to implement. You have an opponent team against which you should force yourself to meet your objective. In real life also you have various life objectives, you have friends and you have opponents and you need to devise methods & tactics to pass through the societal maze to meet your objectives. So it is in the nature of human beings to see a reflection of their real life on a stage.
- It has entertaining power through the talents and artistic display of the players in the team. It is a diversion from the routines of regular life.
· The design and (bright) greenness of the pitch, the colorful jerseys of players, the rules, the uncertainty of final results, the power of the referee, the speed and physical requirement of the game, etc. all these are attractions of the game.
- It is a healthy pastime whereby thousands of fellow human beings enjoy together with you. I think football stadium is the biggest arena which can accommodate about 100 thousand spectators at a time.
- It symbolizes (together with other sports) the need for physical exercise for healthy living of the species.
So everything has its time. We’ve reached a time of revival of football in our country in general and our region in particular. Wise leadership is required to channel the power of football for the good and betterment of society:
a. Education and orientation should be conducted through various means including mass media to curb emotionality and negative parochial trends
b. Fostering football infrastructures such as playing fields and utilities in schools and neighborhoods
c. Establishing various local, county level and regional tournaments where winners are rewarded well
d. Conducting friendly matches with higher level and superior teams invited from national level or from abroad. This serves to gauge status of the local team, gain experience and inspire young children by watching higher level football in their towns.
Finally, I wish all the best to Mekelle and Welwalo Football teams in their joining the Premier League of Ethiopia during the coming season of 2010 E.C.