How things can change in the space of 12 months. Zambia have gone from kings of a continent to being shown up by a side that was last involved in the African Nations Cup 30 years ago but who have all the feist and fight of a champion.
It remains unlikely that Ethiopia will actually win the ANC. For that, they will have to combine the verve they have with some dispassionate and clinical play. But for now, at least their actions have matched their words. Ethiopia said they had nothing to lose in South Africa and they played exactly like it in Monday’s 1-1 draw. And it was not a reckless display that belied thought.
There were tactical moments of genius, particularly when the Ethiopian coach Sewnet Bishaw moved Adane Girma up the pitch and brought on Addis Hintsa. The substitute provided the through ball which led to the equalizer and continued to make an impact as the second half drew on.
Impressively, Ethiopia’s defence tightened effectively as they looked to hold on for the point. After starting the match by being pushed by the Zambian forwards, they looked likely to concede at some point but they closed up when they had to keep Zambia out.
Saladin Said, as expected, was a standout for Ethiopia. He was denied a goal by awkward bounce off the pitch when he lobbed the ball over Kennedy Mweene. His only mistake was side-footing his penalty effort to Mweene’s left. The Zambian shotstopper earned phenomenal praise after the last ANC and that will only continue. His instincts are sharp and his strength unmatched.
In hindsight that may have been the move what cost Ethiopia an unlikely victory but the character they showed in the draw will comfort them enormously. After the penalty went begging, Ethiopia rightly had keeper Jemal Tassew sent off for digging his foot into the thigh of Chisamba Lungu and injuring himself in the process. The referee showed no sympathy and red-carded him as he was stretchered off.
Ethiopia brought on Zerihun Tadele and played the rest of the match with 10 men but held off challenges from Collins Mbesuma and Chris Katongo – two of the best players at this tournament. Their coup was celebrated enthusiastically by a sizable number of supporters who piled into the Mbombela Stadium.
The Ethiopian expat community in South Africa is strong and it seems as though they were all in Nelspruit Monday afternoon. An entire side of the field was flanked by supporters in yellow, who created a drone of vuvuzela-blowing that lasted the entire match. To foreign ears, that sound is still annoying. To those of us who have gotten used to it, it’s the soundtrack of a football match and even though we may not like it all the time, we’ve come to accept it.
What we should not tolerate at all is the behaviour of the fans when they decided they did not like what they saw on the field. As Tassew was sent off, the team’s fans flung plastic bottles and vuvuzelas onto the pitch. They did the same when Zambia celebrated their goal in prayer.
The Ethiopian FA may pay the price for their unruly supporters – which would seem unfair, but someone has to. To talk of blanket bans or playing in front of forced empty stadiums would seem a sin considering crowd numbers are one of the most pressing issues in the tournament. It leaves one thinking that if only people could take responsibility for their own behaviour, football would be a better place.
Still, for the Ethiopian team to have this army behind them as they take on Burkina Faso and then Nigeria will be a massive boost. The proverbial 12th man certainly adds something and Ethiopia may credit it should they pull off an upset and qualify for the quarterfinals.
If Zambia had any of the 20,000 fans their FA requested tickets for in the stadium, they were drowned out. Being geographically close to South Africa, it was expected Zambian fans would turn out in their numbers but either they in hiding or they are waiting to arrive in the latter stages of the event. After the Zambian performance Monday, they may be tempted to arrive a little earlier.