x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

You can almost see Sao Paulo from Addis Ababa

Sunday, at 4pm local time, Addis Ababa will come to a standstill. Ethiopia, the lowest-ranked African side still capable of qualifying for next summer’s Fifa World Cup, play the first of two play-off matches against the champions of the continent, Nigeria.

Ethiopia's Salahdin Said, centre, heads the ball at Nigeria's goal during their African Cup of Nations Group C match at Rustenburg, South Africa. After falling off the football map for three decades Ethiopia is now just two games away from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Armando Franca / AP Photo
Ethiopia's Salahdin Said, centre, heads the ball at Nigeria's goal during their African Cup of Nations Group C match at Rustenburg, South Africa. After falling off the football map for three decades Ethiopia is now just two games away from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Armando Franca / AP Photo

On the dirty streets of the capital, where the sewers flow openly and raggedy donkeys traipse, the shoeshiners will stop and the peddlers will pause. Businessmen will take a break from their weekend exertions and women carrying bundled-up babies on their backs will allow themselves a rest.

Sunday, at 4pm local time, Addis Ababa will come to a standstill.

Ethiopia, the lowest-ranked African side still capable of qualifying for next summer’s Fifa World Cup, play the first of two play-off matches against the champions of the continent, Nigeria.

Win and the team dubbed the Walya Antelopes can dream of a Brazilian migration next June; lose and any chance they have of qualifying for their first global showpiece will be rendered as thin as the country’s ubiquitous injera bread.

Confidence appears high. A Brobdingnagian billboard close to the airport announces Ethiopian Airlines now fly direct to Sao Paulo, and a ticketing clerk for the carrier says the route has proved “very popular so far”.

One man who speaks as if his seat to South America is already booked is Minyahil Teshome, Ethiopia’s fleet-footed playmaker.

Even before the crucial play-off, it is the prospect of facing the likes of Sergio Ramos and Lionel Messi that the Dedebit midfielder is focusing on.

“We are already seeing beyond Nigeria,” Minyahil told Amharic magazine Addis Guday. “It is the World Cup we are preparing for, where we hope to play against Spain and Argentina on the field. We believe that our dream will be realised. We are counting on our fans to help us achieve this objective.”

The fans, many of whom were last night preparing to sleep on the dusty streets around the National Stadium in hope of acquiring one of 20,000 tickets this morning, are ready.

Others will congregate in the tea rooms, cafes, bars and restaurants to watch on television.

“Every TV in the country will have the game on,” says Betemariam Hailu, an Addis-born free-lance sports writer.

“Everyone will be watching.”

Inside the bustling Tomoca cafe in the capital’s piazza district, amid the pungent aroma of burnt coffee beans, the conversations among the small groups of standing men centre on Sunday’s game.

Nigeria, they say, with their international experience and players employed across Europe, will likely be too strong over two legs.

But the first match?

Well, you just never know.

Taddesse Woldegabrel, besuited and bespectacled, studied in London and attended the 1966 World Cup final.

He is able to recite England’s entire starting XI as if he were still standing behind the goals at Wembley Stadium.

Between sips of a steaming hot espresso, he contends that “these two games against Nigeria are our World Cup final”.

“Unless we win this first match handsomely, we have already lost because winning in Nigeria is impossible,” he said. “We are playing against players from Chelsea and Liverpool – and Nigerians have the voodoo, also.”

The last time the two sides met was in January at the African Cup of Nations in South Africa.

Nigeria triumphed 2-0, yet the match proved tighter than many expected with two late penalties from Victor Moses deciding it.

For many, it was more proof that Ethiopia, under coach Sewnet Bishaw, are becoming an emerging force in East African football.

The AFCON campaign was their first in 31 years, and in World Cup qualifying they topped their group, despite a three-point deduction for fielding Minyahil against Botswana when he was suspended.

“We have done our best, now we leave it in the hands of God,” says Solomon, a tour guide working at St George’s Cathedral. “We pray for victory because it would inspire a generation. The young people, especially in the countryside, have nowhere to play sport, so instead they smoke, they drink, they chew qat. Victory could help change that.”

Even in Addis, some children are resigned to a granite wasteland for their football practice.

On the sidelines of Churchill Avenue, one of the city’s busiest streets, a group of teenage boys are put through their paces, with the proliferation of Liverpool and AC Milan shirts perhaps explained by the Ethiopian calendar being “between seven and eight years” behind the Gregorian system.

Sunday, however, those famous shirts will be swapped for the glorious green and gold stripes of the Walya Antelopes.

The old Russian taxis careering down Churchill will grind to a stop as fans outside the stadium begin to filter in.

Then, two hours later, Ethiopia might – just might – erupt in jubilation.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae