Nyala 1 Air Force 0, 31/01/2007 21/03/2007Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
It’s a bit quiet for a Premier League game, given that we’re ten minutes from kick-off. There are folk milling around, but not a crowd by any stretch of the imagination. No overpriced “matchday magazines” either, no burger vans, and no touts. Actually, no ticket vendors of any description, even to service the huddle waiting to purchase tickets for the executive area, nominally the V.I.P.s. But then again this is not Old Trafford, White Hart Lane or even Vicarage Road; it is Addis Ababa, and this is not the bright, shiny FA Premiership, but the Ethiopian Premier League.
I had arrived in East Africa intent on adopting St.George as my Ethiopian side, playing as they do in yellow and red. Also in their favour was their (erstwhile) representation of the brewery that produces Ethiopia’s finest lager – like all the clubs in the sixteen team Premier League, St.George were originally owned and funded by a corporate entity (or government department in some cases). The majority still are.
However my attempts to coerce information about football and fixture lists from a reasonably tolerant native wife yielded the fact that her uncle Welaye is the administrative manager of the Nyala club, owned by the tobacco company that employs him. Suitably, Nyala are bottom of the Ethiopian Premier League, a position with which I find it easy enough to empathise. Colours (white and a bit of blue – no orange, fortunately) thus nailed to the mast.
The ticket vendor finally shows up, and 30 Birr (around £2) is enough to gain me entry to the posh seats. The stadium in Addis is a large concrete bowl dating from the 1950s, complete with athletics track. Its capacity is around 40,000, of which a good 39,500 is redundant today. One obvious question is why this game is being played mid-afternoon on a weekday, to which no entirely satisfactory answer is forthcoming… although the fact that this stadium is shared by no fewer than five of the sixteen Premier League sides no doubt provokes some logistical issues.
Evidence of another challenge besetting the clubs of the Ethiopian Premier League is provided by a youngster indolently kicking a tennis ball around outside the ground. He is wearing a relatively faithful Manchester United replica shirt (in common with so many in Addis, Park Ji Sung’s name adorns it – something I never quite worked out), along with Arsenal replica shorts. Our Premiership is revered unquestioningly by an Ethiopian public who enjoy blanket coverage on national television. Cristiano Ronaldo’s face stares blankly from the back window of half of the taxi vans that rattle around Addis’s increasingly asphalted roads, and if you ask someone who they support, they’ll respond with “Arsenal”, “Manchester United” or “Chelsea” before an Ethiopian team is mentioned.
The apparent indifference to the national league may be due in some degree to disaffection with a national side that disappointed hugely in the recent East and Central African Championships, staged in Ethiopia at the end of last year. Even prior to this development however, as Welaye concedes, if a match was to clash with Premiership coverage the stadium would be completely empty, save for club staff.
Nyala are playing Air Force, whose name tells you all you need to know, and betray all the characteristics of a side with no confidence… signs which are largely independent of the standard or location of the competition. Poor decision making, panicky defending, and very little in the way of risk taking. Air Force are hardly pulling up trees themselves, just a couple of places above their hosts in the table, but look more purposeful and conscious of the havoc they can inflict. Nyala look neat in their build up, but will run into blind alleys before a chance can be created leaving Air Force to break… and the penetration that Nyala make look impossible, Air Force are achieving painfully easily.
A Nyala midfielder plays a neat through ball, which comes to nothing but provokes a smattering of inattentive applause anyway. The atmosphere is peculiarly indifferent, as if the entertainment is a temporary distraction afforded to onlookers waiting for a bus. Attention begins to wander… and a pattern in the advertising hoardings is immediately apparent, with one soft drinks brand particularly dominant. This reflects the input of Sheikh Mohammed Aboud Al Amoudi, the Saudi/Ethiopian benefactor both of Ethiopian sport in general, and of St.George in particular. His business interests include both the national franchise of said soft drink, and of the most ostentatious hotel in Addis Ababa, as well, I am advised, as pretty much every company renting a hoarding at the ground. There is even a large, prominent placard in his honour, although it is not clear whether “Long Live Al Amoudi” is a tribute from a grateful sport, or a less typical form of sponsorship.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, the game meanders onwards. The biggest contrast to the English Premiership, let alone to the relative hurly-burly of the Championship, is the lack of closing down. At 2500 metres above sea level it’s not hard to sympathise, but you do feel that slightly better movement off the ball would pay rapid dividend. As it is, Nyala are gaining a foothold, and confidence with it. Raids down the right are looking promising, and from one such assault the winger, presented with little in the way of fruitful alternative, skins his fullback who hacks him indiscreetly in passing before turning to the official with outstretched palms, the universal response of such miscreants. It’s still goalless as the referee – assisted, incidentally, by female assistant and fourth official – blows for the interval, but one suspects that the Nyala camp might be the happier.
At the break I am introduced to the gentleman on my right, whose serene manner and leather jacket had already betrayed him as being of a certain standing. He is the president of St.George, it transpires, and I am suddenly grateful for my cursory pre-trip research which permits me to commiserate with my neighbour over St.George’s scurrilous treatment at the hands of Hearts of Oak during qualifying for last season’s African Champions’ League. Having won the home leg 4-0, according to my research, St.George travelled to Ghana for the return only to be treated so appallingly that they withdrew and forfeited the tie. Judging from the visible darkening of the club president’s expression, I deduce that all has not been forgiven.
There is, however, seemingly a cordial understanding between Nyala and St.George, whose officials relax together. “We share experiences and help each other”, I am advised. “We are not rivals”. Not so St.George and Coffee; when Addis’ big two meet the stadium will be far busier, and security necessarily ramped up.
The second half begins. There’s an odd lack of consistency in the skills on show that’s difficult to understand; a deft, insightful flick will win a player time and space, and he’ll then miscontrol the ball and let it roll into touch.Air Force have another good spell, and Nyala’s one consistently impressive and confident performer, their goalkeeper, earns his corn by clawing a fierce drive out of the top corner. The keeper is Ghanaian, Welaye reports, and his making his debut. “We have problems with goalkeepers in Ethiopia”, he confesses. There’s certainly a contrast here; the Ghanaian is comfortably the largest man on the pitch, whereas his opposite number is some way short of six foot.
Nyala’s coach, also clad in a leather jacket that the climate doesn’t really demand, barks instructions. His side respond by getting hold of the game again, although I can’t help but feel that they aren’t helped by a ponderous insistence in attacking down the left, where the right-footed winger is making a series of bad decisions. When the breakthrough comes, somewhat inevitably, it’s down the opposite flank… a quick break, a fine delivery and a fierce header on the run that flies past a helpless goalkeeper. Suddenly the crowd is animated, and the universal language of going bonkers at a late winner is being spoken fluently, not least by Welaye. To my right, the St.George president applauds politely; the relevance to his club at the business end of the table is limited.
Nyala remain rooted to the bottom despite the result; the team’s win bonus is the equivalent of slightly over £20 a head. It seems a crying shame that, whatever the gulf in standard and mumblings of corruption notwithstanding, local interest in the domestic competition in a football-mad country is deflected instead at the Premiership, whose geographical and financial distance afford it a lustre that almost transport it to the echelons that supporting hype would have you believe. I don’t doubt that killing the game in East Africa wasn’t the plan… after all, whoever is profiting from the roaring trade in inattentive replica kit it’s unlikely to be the coffers of the relevant clubs. But such is the effect, and it leaves the likes of Nyala – and even St.George – suffering even more acutely from competition with United, Arsenal and the rest than their nearer neighbours in the Football League.