Coaching in Ethiopia: rain, oxen and Jackass

Last time out, our intrepid manager Iffy Onuora had landed in a surprisingly rainy Ethiopia hoping to get to grips with his new job as national team manager. It wasn't as easy as you might think...

Soon after I arrived in Addis Ababa, I realised the rain might be a problem. The capital city sits on the foothills of Mount Entoto and is 7,500 feet above sea level – twice the height of almost anywhere in Britain – and the dry season only lasts from October to February, with June to September being monsoon-heavy. And guess when I got the job? 

Not only did it rain a lot, but it quickly became clear that this had an understandably adverse effect on the city's pitches. And it's fair to say we quickly ran out of them. A capital city of four million people, Addis has four, let me repeat that, FOUR football pitches.

Obviously we'd have to decamp to lower, warmer, drier climes. So we set off some 100 miles to the city of Adama (a major city, population 500,000), where the dry weather was much more conducive to the health of the one (again, let me repeat) ONE grass pitch.

I soldiered on with a squad of 45 players, including 12 left-backs, with the grass growing appreciably every day. Groundsman? There wasn't even a lawnmower in sight. It was clear that we needed, in my shrill lament, “ANY. GRASS. AREA. TO. TRAIN. ON. CLOSE.  BY... PLEEEEASE!” Oh, and did I mention that there were no white markings on the pitch at all. No? Well there weren’t!

Football in Addis Ababa: "Will this do, Iffy?" "NO!"

Finally my federation-approved, non-coaching but all-knowing, less-than-useful assistant, suggested a “pich” 10 kilometres away. So we went off to investigate with a spring in our steps, and joy in our hearts. As I emerged from the car we were welcomed by a small group of men eager to show the national coach their “pich”.

As I followed them, traipsing through undergrowth in the manner of David Bellamy, it’s probably fair to say that my initial hope, had turned to something closer to despair. Eventually we emerged from the clearing to a valley and a “pich”, set in an admittedly beautiful vista with mountains all around.

The surroundings were beautiful, but it was the “pich” that I’d come to see, and it soon caught my attention. Stopping abruptly and staring in disbelief, I hovered on the edge, rooted to the spot. Meanwhile my assistant breezed past my shoulder, barely breaking stride as he marched purposefully across the “pich”, through the centre circle to the other side. Once there he appeared to be deep in negotiations, carrying the demeanour of a man sure of himself and his purpose.

After what seemed an age and with my incredulity long past breaking point he returned, and finally asked me what I thought of the “pich”. For that brief moment all seemed to go quiet as I felt a dozen pair of eyes on me awaiting my response. I returned the stares with interest, feeling that I was surely part of an elaborate Jackass-style hoax, which would soon reveal itself.

It soon transpired that they were indeed serious, and for a brief moment I wondered whether I was at fault, and I was seeing something no one else could see. Rubbing my eyes and happy that I was still in full charge of all my faculties, I turned to my assistant with mounting anger disguised as heavy duty sarcasm.

"What do I think? What do I think? Well, I think even if we were to look past the complete absence of any grass, and the one-in-four gradient which would certainly add an element of surprise to a counter-attack, I’m really at a loss to see how we can look past the OXEN GRAZING IN THE CENTRE CIRCLE, DEFECATING AS WE SPEAK!"

(In the interests of journalistic veracity, I might point out that I used a slightly different word to "defecating", and there might have been one or two other Anglo-Saxon expletives dotted around like, well, cattle in a field...)

"Scuse me mate, where are the changing rooms?"

That was in August, and problems of that nature minus the comedic value remain. However, on the plus side the local people are wonderful, warm and friendly, and I guess you can’t complain too loudly if your home is a five-star Sheraton hotel set back in the hills of Addis.

The players are a delight to work with, too. And in one or two cases, they aren’t short of the kind of ability that, given the opportunity, would light up certainly the Championship, perhaps even the Premier League.

So what of the team, I hear you ask? Well, after a first game loss to Guinea in circumstances too bizarre to go into – but suffice to say, had it occurred in England they’d still be discussing on Match of the Day and in the higher echelons of the FA – we won our last game, away in Madagascar. Yes, it’s not just a cute kid’s film, they have a team there!

We’re now level on points with Nigeria, who we play in our next two games in the qualifying group for the Africa Cup of Nations. We play back to back, starting with the away game over there in March, which will be especially significant for me, and for which the Onuora tribe are already planning a mass expedition.

This follows hard on the heels of a recent insurgent takeover of a previously peaceful and quiet Burlington, Canada for my brother’s wedding. In hindsight, I can well understand the Canadian authorities’ neo-fascist approach to immigration control.

Before that, and looming ever larger, we are part of a 12-team tournament at the end of November and beginning of December in Tanzania – another stamp in the passport. The cast also includes such African luminaries as the Ivory Coast, though probably minus big hitters like Didier Drogba and the Toures.

It’s another chance to measure our progress against the other African teams, though if our trip to Madagascar is anything to go by, I’ll be prepared this time for a lot of waiting around at airports...

So, I’m still keeping my eyes on all the football in England via the BBC and seven sports channels here – including THREE live Premier League games every Saturday. Another thing to note: forget the athletics tradition here, they're truly football-mad, and in particular, the Premiership. All you true Gooners fans and secret admirers (step forward Yours Truly), you’ll be pleased to know that they’re by some distance the most popular team out here.

Finally – and I know I’m tempting fate here – with all due respect to those who have lost their jobs already this season, is it just me or the sackings way down on this time last year? (None to date in the Premier League, for instance.)

If it heralds a new era of restraint, then that can only be good, as it’s still a jungle out there, – even if I doubt whether any coaches in England have had to consider sharing their pitch with livestock...

See you soon,