NAIROBI, Kenya, January 21- For decades, Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners have developed an intense rivalry for top honours at international events but on Monday, the former will sit down to watch the latter’s football team fly the East African flag at the Nations Cup.
The Walya Antelopes as the Ethiopian football team is known are returning to the high table of continental football after a 31-year hiatus having made the tournament by outclassing Sudan who featured in last year’s event.
On the other hand, Harambee Stars who last played at the Nations Cup in 2004, failed to topple Togo meaning yet another spell on the sidelines.
Ethiopia will be welcomed to the continental fold after a lengthy absence with a fixture against defending champions, Zambia.
The East African country failed to convince the regional fanatics of their abilities after a drab performance during the regional Cecafa tournament held in November 2012 led to a quarter-final exit, but the impressive results registered in the latest build-up games, especially the 2-1 win over Tanzania, dictate more promise.
The talent is almost all home-based, from the club sides Dedebit, Defence and Saint George. Just one professional plays club football outside Ethiopia — star striker Saladin Said, who features in the Egyptian Premier League.
The opening fixture will be crucial for both sides and Zambia, who have vowed to defend their title at all costs, are seeking no less than three points.
Head coach Sewnet Bishaw, who has been in charge since November 2011, believes Ethiopia’s relative anonymity can help them spring a surprise in a group that contains holders Zambia, as well as Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
The players, having become national heroes through qualifying, do not want their journey to end in the group stage.
“We know Nigeria and Zambia are strong opponents, but they should not forget we qualified by beating Sudan, who played at the 2012 Cup of Nations,” said 27-year-old striker Adane Girma at a Press conference.
“In the past, we had problems in beating opponents in away matches. Now this is history. Psychologically, we have shown encouraging improvements, and as a result we also have a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.”
Much of the weight of expectation will lie squarely on the shoulders of Girma and attacker Fuad Ibrahim.
Zambia tactician Hervé Renard has chosen to work with a majority of the squad that clinched the Afcon title in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon last year.
Captain Christopher Katongo, TP Mazembe’s Stopilla Sunzu and English-based Emmanuel Mayuka are the players to watch in this match.