JOHANNESBURG, South Africa January 11 – Ethiopia achieved the rare feat of conceding five goals in a qualifier and still reaching the Africa Cup of Nations.
Sudan scored five in Khartoum only to come off second best in the scramble for a ticket to South Africa on the away-goal rule after losing the second leg 2-0 in Addis Ababa.
Supporters of the Walias Antelopes — an endangered species found in the mountains of northern Ethiopia — danced and sang late into the night in the streets of the capital to celebrate a return to the Cup of Nations.
When the fearless national team walk on to the Mbombela Stadium pitch in Nelspruit on January 21 to face title holders Zambia they will be ending a three-decade absence from the African football showcase.
Ethiopia have been drawn with Zambia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso in Group C and the last time they played in the tournament 31 years ago they also met the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) and the Super Eagles in Libya.
The Antelopes fell 3-0 to Nigeria and 1-0 to Zambia and just about every football supporter outside the east African state expects similar outcomes this time, leaving the Ethiopians and the Burkinabe to fight for third place.
Just getting to the 2013 tournament has been a great achievement for coach Sewnet Bishaw and his team as they eliminated favoured Benin, also on away goals, before being paired with Sudan.
Bishaw is in his second spell at the helm and has changed the weekend life style of many countrymen, who traditionally shunned a struggling national side and watched televised English Premier League and Spanish La Liga games instead.
“We worked really hard to qualify and people should appreciate that. We cleared difficult hurdles in Benin and Sudan and will not make life easy for any of our opponents,” he told Ethiopian reporters.
“Hard work and unity are our strengths. We succeeded because of intense training and a high level of discipline. I just hope we can learn from some of the silly goals we conceded in Khartoum.”
Bishaw inherited one of the hottest national-coach seats in Africa with 15 occupants during the past decade, including Scot Iffy Onuora, who was sacked for telling reporters he had to clear grazing cows before training sessions.
There are no animals these days — just a dedicated group of footballers dominated by league champions Saint George and runners-up Dedebit, who supply 17 of the 23-man squad.
But the star of the team, striker Saladin Said, is based in Egypt and there are two other foreign-based Antelopes heading for South Africa — midfielder Yusuf Salah plays in Sweden and striker Fuad Ibrahim in the United States.
Virtually unknown outside his country until last year, Said has a habit of scoring spectacular goals and if he clicks, Ethiopia could be celebrating a first Cup of Nations victory since overcoming Uganda 37 years ago.