The stands shake as fans break into song. Hundreds jump up and down, setting a much faster tempo than the play on the field.
This soccer stadium is in the heart of political opposition territory in Ethiopia. On a recent Sunday, thousands of supporters are sitting shoulder to shoulder. And surrounding the pitch, dozens of paramilitary police look out at the crowd, some with their guns in hand, others at the ready with tear gas canisters.
“I came here to see the play,” says one spectator, Solomon, an older man who asked only to use his first name because talking to a journalist in Ethiopia can land you in trouble. “Most of the people came to see the play. But some people are here to see the disruption.”
For the past three years, this region of Ethiopia has been engulfed by protests. What began as demonstrations against the expansion of the capital Addis Ababa have widened to include protests about ethnic equality, corruption and democracy. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds have been killed. In February, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation and the government placed the country under a state of emergency. The unrelenting protests have presented the most serious threat to the country’s ruling coalition since it came to power in 1991.
The popular uprising has affected seemingly all aspects of life — including soccer, the country’s favorite sport. Soccer stadiums have become battlefields and teams have become a proxy for the political divisions in the country. The 16 premier-league teams represent provinces largely drawn along ethnic lines.
In this match the home team, Adama City, is from an opposition stronghold and Welwalo Adigrat University comes from an area dominated by Tigrayans, an ethnic minority group that controls much of the government.
Solomon shakes his head at the prospect of a confrontation here, especially if Adama loses. Across the country, soccer games have been disrupted by fans fighting each other and clashing with police. The country’s soccer federation has had to relocate matches from restive areas because of the potential for violence.
“It’s the low-minded people who bring protests to stadiums,” Solomon says. “It’s the young guys who don’t know that soccer is about peace.”
And just as he says that, Adama scores a goal and the crowd erupts into a joyous roar.
For a moment, at least, the country’s politics seem really far away.
‘Ethiopians love football beyond our life’
Ethiopia has a long and tortured history with soccer, which like many nations it calls football. The country was one of the founding members of the Confederation of African Football and, in 1962, the national team became the continental champion. Since then, Ethiopians have barely made it past the first round and have never qualified for the World Cup.
Still, Ethiopians love the game. Fans travel hundreds of miles to see their teams. Sometimes you’ll see caravans of cars stopped on the side of a highway — the fans jumping by the side of the of the road or on top of the cars waving their team flags.
“We Ethiopians love football beyond our life,” says Mokaninet Berhe, the host of Sport Zone Ethiopia, a TV program featuring sports documentaries. “They support their clubs beyond their life. They are mad. They are ultras.”
In Ethiopia, the beautiful game has routinely been an arena where politics are played out. It began in the 1930s, when Italy was trying to colonize the country. At the time, Ethiopians were not allowed to play alongside Europeans. So in 1935, the St. George Sports Club emerged as the first all-Ethiopian pro soccer team.
In the early 1940s, Ethiopia defeated Italy to end the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Almost immediately afterward, the two countries faced off on the soccer field. The Ethiopians won and St. George became a symbol of the country’s struggle for freedom.
“St. George football club is the only one [that allowed] Ethiopians to express their feelings,” Berhe says.
And that relationship continued through Ethiopia’s modern history. In the ’80s, during the red-terror days of the Derg regime, soccer again provided an outlet in a country where freedom of speech was, and still remains, deeply curtailed.
As the historian Solomon Addis Getahun describes it, during that period certain teams were linked with the military and police and others, like St. George, were associated with the people. So, it was not uncommon for games to end with clashes between security forces and soccer supporters.
Ethiopia is seeing some of the same things happening today: Spectators are shouting anti-government chants and there have been violent clashes between fans and with police.
“So now in Ethiopia, the supporters are now bigger than the game,” says Berhe.
It’s obviously political but it’s also about sports, he adds. On the streets, Ethiopians are demanding a better life. They want better education and jobs. They want their voice to be heard. On the pitch, they want coaching; they want commitment.
And right now, all they’re getting on the field is frustration — a moribund national team and a premier league with dispiriting games ending in a tie, or without a single goal scored.
Holes in the field
Back at the stadium, Adama takes a 2-0 lead. One of its players weaves through the Welwalo defense and finds an opening outside the box — no defenders and a distracted goalie.
He shoots but misses — high and wide. The crowd groans.
Tadyos, a guy in his early 20s, who also wants to be identified only by his first name because he fears retribution, sits down near Solomon. He has one hand on his forehead, not believing what he just saw.
A well-trained team shouldn’t miss a shot like that. But, Tadyos says, it’s not the training. “It’s the field,” he says, in Amharic. “It’s uneven with holes everywhere. If the government took care of it instead of using the money to enrich itself, fans would see better football.”
That play set Tadyos off. Suddenly his voice grows louder and he stops looking at the paramilitary police in front of him.
“The corruption in Ethiopia has not only ruined the country’s football,” he says, “but also torn the country apart by sowing division along ethnic lines.”
After almost three years of nonstop protests, Ethiopia has become deeply divided. A central aspect of the conflict is that huge ethnic groups in the country feel marginalized and left out of prosperity by the ruling coalition.
It’d be nice for the game to be pure again, says Tadyos, but he’s certain that won’t happen until all Ethiopians feel heard.