By – Girmachew Kebede Mengesha
ADDIS ABABA, September 11, 2018 – It was 38 hours before the Ethiopian New Year 2011 (September 9, 2018 in the Western calendar), when under the watchful eye of the former National Team coach Sewnet Bishaw, who took the “Walias” to the Africa Cup of Nations finals after a three-decade hiatus, Ethiopia’s new coach Abraham Mebratu sauntered to the track of the newly-built Hawassa International Stadium, in a dark blue suit clasping his hands behind his back.
Playing against Sierra Leone, it was Ethiopia’s second match of the AFCON qualifiers, and it was Mebratu’s first competitive game as the “Walias” coach. The team had lost its first match of the group in a 5-0 mauling to Ghana.
For Sewnet, the newly elected executive committee member of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) and chairperson of the National technique committee, Abraham is his first appointment. And he watches his appointee from above sitting in the tentative “Directors’ Box” made from three small tents, with a pen in his hand and a small note pad on the table. Down on the track beside the pitch, it only took Abraham three minutes after kickoff to spring from his chair & start gesticulating, clapping & crossing his arms over his chest. This was his dream and he reached it after a long and arduous journey that started 31 years ago, 1980 in the Ethiopian calendar with a detour along the way. .
Career changing For ardent fans of local football & beyond, 1980 was THE year. Ethiopia became champion of the CECAFA cup, the regional and oldest championship in Africa, by beating Zimbabwe 4-3 on penalties. For the young Abraham, however, 1980 was different. While playing for Teferi Mekonnen School, he was selected to represent his team Keftegna 20 in the local district competition. That paved the way to being scouted to play for Qera who were playing in Addis Ababa’s 2nd division. Before making a decision on his final squad, Qera’s coach organized a friendly game against Midr Tor- the Ground Forces. Leading the line for Qera, Abraham accidentally collided with a Midr Tor player, injuring his knee in the process. He left the pitch never to return to play again.
His short-lived playing career over; he fell back to another passion of his. Even in school, he had “a penchant for coaching.” Now a member of the national technique committee, Abera Habte used to be his physical education teacher. Before the game against Sierra Leone, Abraham explained how Mr. Abera influenced him showing the utmost respect by using the Amharic honorific title Gashe. “When Gashe Abera needed an assistant [for football training] from the students, he would select me every time. It [being selected as an assistant] helped me believe that I could be like Gashe Abera one day.” It didn’t take long.
Coach Abraham By then, Addis Ababa was divided into five football zones. St. George’s player-coach Solomon Mekonnen-Lucho, took a liking to a young coach working with lowly Keftegna 20. “Solomon took me under his wing,’’ beams Abraham without hiding his admiration to one of the best players seen in Ethiopia’s football history. Luck came knocking the young coach’s door again. Addis Ababa’s first division side Ethiopian Grain FC hired him to coach their youth team well into the end of season. He didn’t disappoint. He won the Addis Ababa championship, his first title as a coach and joined Customs FC on the back of the good result.
After Customs FC was disbanded and 10 years after his Knee injury cut his playing career short, he got many head coach offers from clubs but he went to Ethiopian Coffee to work under the prominent Seyoum Abate because “I wanted to learn about coaching in-depth.” 1990 Ethiopian calendar turned out to be one of Ethiopian Coffee’s best seasons. They became the first Ethiopian side to win Bronze medal in CECAFA club championship and eliminated the giant Al-Ahly of Egypt from the CAF Champions League.
“Apart from the success,’’ Abraham says, “Seyoum gave me the key to coaching. I learned how to coach & select players and manage big clubs. Seyoum is my coaching guru.” When Seyoum left, Abraham managed the team for a short period of time, yet he didn’t stay longer. Why? Why would he leave one of the biggest clubs in Ethiopia? “I couldn’t handle the pressure,” he said. Then along came Nyala FC. He took Nyala to the highest echelon of Ethiopian football after back-to-back promotions. “People know me because of what I did with Nyala,” he exclaims, “and my success [with Nyala] showed me I was on the right track.”
YEMEN CAME CALLING
After four years and two successive promotions later with Nyala FC, Abraham joined Wonji Sugar FC. “In my first year I led Wonji to promotion to the premier league. We avoided relegation in my second year,” he explains. “However it became difficult to travel back and forth from Addis Ababa (his home town) to Wonji and I wanted to take computer related courses. Therefore, I left Wonji and decided to coach an Addis Ababa-based team.” Ethiopia Insurance FC became his next stop. When only few games left for promotion to the Ethiopian Premier League, Yemen came calling.
But, why Yemen? Wasn’t it an unchartered territory for Ethiopian coaches? “I wanted to show that Ethiopian coaches could be successful abroad,” replies Abraham. He went to Yemen to coach Al-Hilal, taking them to the Asian Confederation’s Cup group stage. According to Abraham, he only coached the team after 4:00pm because of the hot weather, leaving him with ample time to work with kids and local coaches. A year later, he became coach of the Yemeni U-22 national team taking them to the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship in Oman. He also worked as the Technical Director of the Yemen FA until 2015. The world however, came to know him when he led the war-torn country’s national team to the Asian cup finals for the first time in its football history.
Diplomatic intervention While Abraham was becoming a household name in Asian football after his heroics with the Yemen national team, Ethiopia’s Football Federation was making a name for itself in the opposite sense because of election controversies. After nine months of election bickering, Esayas Jira was elected as President of EFF with host of new executive committee members. Their first job? To find a coach for the national team, which had remained without a coach since December 2017. They posted a vacancy. Abraham didn’t apply. “… I was preparing the Yemen National team for the Asian cup and I thought they would give it [the job] to local coaches. In addition, the Yemenis had been good to me as I had been good to them.” argues the 48 year old coach.
EFF scrapped the vacancy and made the Qatar-based coach their number one target. “The question came as a national service. I was put in a tough position. It was hard to say yes or no,” remembers the former Yemen national team coach. “I had difficulty telling my bosses at the Yemen FA.” When he told them after much deliberation, they wouldn’t let him leave. The Ethiopian Ambassador to Qatar Metasebia Tadesse was following the case closely. “The ambassador met with the Yemen FA officials and argued that Ethiopia and Yemen has historical & ancient ties and Ethiopia would do the same if a similar case was to happen to Yemen,” Abraham describes the content of the meeting. Finally the Yemen FA officials relented.
Seven-month void Three decades after his fateful injury, 42 days before the Ethiopian New Year, EFF presented Abraham as the coach of the National Team for the next two years with the aim of building a strong national team. This is not going to be easy for a national team that had been without a coach and a game for the last seven months prior to the appointment of Abraham. To return the national team to the heydays of the Sewnet era, the former Yemen coach believes his players should be disciplined for “it’s the basis for everything we do.” to play for him? “They must have a respect for the profession.” Respect is what got him here even if it means taking the long way around.
Voice of the stadium Before Abraham became a household name in Asian football, prior to working under his coaching guru Seyoum while he was coaching Customs FC, he tried another profession to make ends meet. He worked as a stadium announcer at Addis Ababa Stadium. Last Sunday when he led his team against Sierra Leone at Hawassa International Stadium, a similar voice to his calling the XI in his first competitive game must somehow be a throwback movement.
“Ayzon” It took the Walias seven minutes to register their first attempt; thirty five minutes to score the only goal of the game, Getaneh Kebede converting from the spot. Abraham gesticulating, clapping, crossing his hands over his chest on the track; Sewnet taking notes from above at the “Directors box.” When the second half started, EFF president Esayas & Sewnet fist bumped uttering “Ayzon,” an Amharic word so loaded with emotion and the principle of togetherness that its loosely translated English version “it’s going to be okay” wouldn’t do justice to it. After the final whistle, EFF’s president kissed the bald of Sewnet as if saying “Good job getting us Abraham.” Sewnet and Abraham work together well. They won the CECAFA cup together as coach and assistant coach. On the track, chaos ensued. The coach mobbed by overzealous fans during a pitch side post match flash interview. Among the fans mobbing the coach was EFF’s vice-president Awel Abdurahim, trying to put 100br notes around the coach’s neck inside his shirt’s collar, almost untying his cravat.
It is in Ethiopians’ tradition to present money for performers when they make you happy. Now Abraham has jumped his first hurdle, making his bosses happy. It must be a thrilling moment for former stadium announcer to get three points in his first competitive game as coach of the national team. How would Abraham put it in his own words? The soft spoken coach’s answer was short and simple. “To God be the Glory and Happy New Year for all Ethiopians!”