By Bayelegne Yirgu, Oct. 22, 2012
Last weekend, the National Football team – nicknamed Walya – made history. The two goals scored by Adane and Saladin, at the 63rd and 67th minute, respectively; delivered a decisive 2:0 win against the Sudanese and secured its entry to the forthcoming African Cup of Nations.
The victory was the latest in a series of uplifting news in the foot ball arena. Just a day earlier, the Youth football team (a.k.a. the Keye Kebero) won its first international game, while, few weeks earlier, the Women’s football team (a.k.a. the Lucy) qualified for the African Women Championship.
However, the Walya’s victory, last weekend, was the one that attracted much attention and electrified the whole country with nationalism and optimism. That was not only because the adult males’ Football game has more fans, but also due to its historic significance. The sport family in particular and the nation in general, have longed for three decades to see the national football team play at the African Championship. It was distressing that for three decades the nation couldn’t qualify to a Championship it pioneered its establishment.
The joyful players, fan, media and stakeholders credited the victory to the Great Leader Meles Zenawi and dedicated it in his memory.
However, few individual soon started asking if the late Prime Minister had a role in the victory. Some of them genuinely thought, for Meles to take the credit, he should have attended games abandoning his office or had had to make show-off public statements about the football as some leaders do. Some of them, on the other hand, were posing the issue simply to do what they always do, which is their habitual rejectionist of everything that happens in Ethiopia.
The shortest answer to all would be: A leader takes part of the credit for what happens on his watch.
After all, it is the economic and social policies of Meles Zenawi that provided the Sport with an informed, healthy youth, who are both participants and audience of games, and a burgeoning private sector, which contributes by making donations and advertisements.
Ridiculously, the repeatedly cited ‘evidence’ by the detractors is a statement Meles allegedly said two decades ago. That is: Building a stadium is an agenda secondary to food security. Though, I don’t know the context in which Meles made the statement, there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, it is a frank and candid statement expected from a responsible statesman given the then situation of the country. For a leader, who received an empty treasury and a starving population, promising a stadium would be untruthful, as he couldn’t deliver a stadium without diverting cash from urgent and basic services.
But that doesn’t mean Meles forgot the football issue altogether. In fact, when we think of the 1990s, the Youth Football Project comes to mind. It was intended to bring about a wide pool of generation of competent football players. How much the project delivered is an issue still debated among football professionals. However, it is not surprising that a single project couldn’t dramatically change the Ethiopian football, though it resulted in a significant number of armature players and football professionals.
An integrated approach was put in place, after the renewal movement in EPRDF at the beginning of the last decade. The ruling party and the government articulated clearer policy and strategies for several national issues. The need to give more attention to urban areas and the youth was clearly underlined.
Following that, a Sport Policy was formulated for the first time in Ethiopia history, with an active participation and involvement of stakeholders, partners and collaborators. The National Sport Policy noted that: “Sport encompasses the various form of physical activities carried by an individual or a group either in organized or unorganized manner to recreate himself, build his physique and cultivate his brain, test his state of fitness, irrespective of a age, sex, place and time. The bases for sport are of course the community and mankind at large. Participating in sports not only empowers the individual with healthy physique brain but also strengthens social bondage by creating harmony with others. This in turn creates solidarity among nations and nationalities thus consolidating the unity of the peoples.”
The Policy rightly identified the main causes of the underdevelopment of Ethiopian Sport as “organizational and that of outlook”. It summarized the situation and indicated the way out as follows:
“The main focus has been on organizing competitive sports for the very few elite athletes who have gained recognition by themselves rather than producing elite sports persons by organizing community centered sports activities.
Yet as this intent on gaining victory lacks broad base that would replenish able sports persons, the results registered have been declining as well. The limited role of the community in sports, the decline of sports in schools; the shortage of sports facilities, sportswear and equipment as well as the lack of of trained personnel in the sphere have also made the problem more complex.
In order to gradually solve these fundamental problems and guide our sports in a different direction with a new outlook, a community centered movement remains the only alternative. Therefore, realizing the imminent role of the society in producing elite sports persons capable of registering outshining achievements at national and international competitions, the formulation of this sport policy has become essential.”
The emphasis on community involvement and making the sport activities mass-based was based on considerations of efficiency and the value of public ownership. But it was also indicative of the Sport professionals and stakeholders understanding that the financial capacity of the nation.
Therefore, in line with the situation analysis, the Policy outlined its key directions as: Enhancing the participation of the community in traditional sports and sport for-all as well as recreational activities in consistent with their capacity and preference; Registering great achievements of international standard by tapping the overall sports activity within the community and in particular from among the youth by creating awareness and participation amongst them; and Ensuring that the overall organization and management of sport is community based.
Following the official endorsement of the policy and the formulation of national and local implementation plans, which were integrated with the corresponding aspects of the Urban, the Youth and the Women development plans, a host of works of short-term and long-term impacts have been done. The works include, among others, facilitating different sports activities at their localities, schools and working places; encouraging traditional sports games; and the training of qualified sports personnel to abate the lack of skilled manpower.
Although all the above task are essential and also ground-laying, our attention is directed most of the time to one, more visible and costly, task of the policy; that is, Establishing and preserving sport and recreational facilities, constructed by the government along side with the community, in residential & educational areas as well as working places.
In this regard, thousands sporting facilities have been constructed, upgraded and maintained in the six years since the adoption of the Policy. Perhaps, one of the major achievements is the construction of hundreds of multi-purpose Youth Centers as well as local football playing games in urban and semi-urban areas across the country. In line with the policy, this was done with the active involvement and contribution of the local population, sectoral offices and other stakeholders.
Using the same principle of community involvement, currently the nation has embarked on the construction of five standard Football Stadiums in main regional cities as well as a Sport academy in the Capital city. The design of a new stadium, with 60,000 seats, to be built in our Capital city has been recently approved and its construction is expected to begin next year.
All this was not a result of knee-jerk decisions or a sudden revelation about the importance of sport. Instead, it was a result of a logical assessment of the economic state of the country.
This is best expressed in what the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, in 2007(8), during his annual conference with thousands youth representatives convenient from across the country. The youth asked him regarding the level of attention given for the expansion of sport and recreational facilities. Meles responded, as in a humorous, simple and youth-friendly manner of speaking, as follows:
“At first, our whole attention was directed to reducing poverty and improving the economy. You can’t prescribe recreation for a hungry person. But when your stomach becomes fuller and fuller, sporting becomes mandatory for your mental and physical health. Thus, as our country economic condition is improving, we shall allocate more resources for sport and recreational facilities. That is what we are doing now. And, we will continue to allocate more and more resources, in proportion to the progress in the general economy.”
Indeed, the victory by the Walya, last weekend, answered the wishes that Meles Zenawi expressed in 2007, when he received the Confederation of African Football's (Caf) Gold Order of Merit award, the highest award of the organization, for his services to African football. On the occasion, Meles said:
"Football is playing a great role here and in the continent. I will do everything at my disposal to support and encourage the game in Ethiopia,….I have also come to recognize the tremendous progress African football has made, but I deeply regret the fact that Ethiopia has not made any progress".
It is in consideration of all these, several more efforts and contributions of Meles Zenawi, that the sport family regretted he is not around to see the victory and dedicated it to his memory.