Oscar Wilde, Imelda Marcos and R Kelly - just another Ethiopian Christmas

Well folks, belated Happy New Year to all from sunny 25 degrees, Addis Ababa, where we’ve just celebrated the Ethiopian Christmas, a full two weeks after Xmas in England and a week after New Year.

But that’s not to say New Year was a quiet affair. The Sheraton hotel I stay in hosted a New Year’s Eve party in the grounds - entertaining five thousand revellers who each paid 2000 Birr (£80) for food, wine and the music of R Kelly, who was playing live.

It was a grand occasion indeed, with the hotel doing a marvellous job of erecting the stage for the party. Naturally I couldn’t miss out on such an occasion and joined in the night heartily from the excellent vantage point of my hotel room!

Eighty quid? A week after embarking on a spending frenzy for extended family back in England that would have made Imelda Marcos blush?

No, no, no I could see fine from the cheap seats, and besides, I saw said Mr Kelly back in the day in England before some fairly dubious personal peccadilloes blighted his career…

"You up there in the cheap seats - make some noise!"

So since I returned it’s been a question of adjusting back to life in Addis. No complaints about the weather, but even though I was only back for ten days (actually nine, with no luggage-thanks Ethiopian Airlines!), and not withstanding New Year’s Eve celebrations, it always takes me a while to re-adjust to my surroundings.

It’s also been a sad early start to the year here, as a bus travelling back from a game involving one of the leading teams from the Premier League here, was involved in a crash, with one player and one team official killed and eight of the team in hospital.

I, along with other members of the Federation, went to the airport to meet the team on their return to Addis. It was a very sad occasion as was the next day’s funeral and visit to the hospital to visit the injured players.

It was a remainder of how fickle fate, and indeed life can be, and certainly put things in perspective. Almost unbelievably there was another crash later in the week involving a team from Division One. This time, mercifully, there were no fatalities, but it was another uncomfortable hospital visit, and not one I’d like to repeat anytime soon.

It always sounds glib, but life does indeed go on, so with the start of 2011, attention has already turned towards preparations for our AFCON Game versus Nigeria in March. I was reminded of some sage advice from the now ex-Technical Director of the Federation, a nationalised American-Ethiopian, wearily familiar with life back in his homeland.

“Coach, if you want something for tomorrow, you should have asked for it two weeks ago!”. I soon learnt the truth of that statement - the wheels do turn slowly here and that’s why I’m trying to put things into place now, ready for March.

Hopefully this will involve a couple of friendlies in February and early March which will allow me to look at some more players and take the advice generously dished out from every quarter as to who I should pick and why.

After our efforts in Tanzania I thought I might have been given a little more deference when proffering advice, but not so.

While there has been a recent upsurge in belief, and recognition of the strides being made, there is still no shortage of ‘advice’.

Most of it comes with good intentions, and it is perhaps understandable and part of the fabric of football anywhere, I’m often bemused as to the source of it.

Even people whose approach to their own job is, one could euphemistically describe as “relaxed” see no irony in voicing their own advice as to how I might do mine.

I’m used to it now, and adopt a pose of heightened bemusement, as in, “REALLY, ok, I’d never thought about THAT before”! (typical advice offered: “You must watch the games from the Premier League, and bring in some other players you see”).

“No kidding eh, well I’ll be sure to do just that, and I know you’ll be impressed that I got dressed all by myself this morning too!”

That was probably the best of the ripostes I’ve delivered. Oscar Wilde need not be unduly concerned by this challenger to his throne of King of the one line put downs.

Wilde: Witty - but how would he get on at the African Cup of Nations?

In truth it’s well meaning advice of the kind that’s the staple of phone-ins and message boards especially in England. It is also true that the more I watch the teams and players here in Ethiopia, the more impressed I am by the depth of talent here.

Most of the players look, and indeed are, not so far removed from street players, learning from this precious School for Hard Knocks, the basics of control, passing and dribbling skills.

These are timeless skills and it’s where all the great players learnt their trade. In Africa you can see this in cities like Accra, Lagos and now Addis. You can teach skilful and technically adept players tactics and fitness, but after a certain age - maybe fourteen - the principle doesn’t work in reverse. 

Whenever football in England indulges in its ritual burst of blood letting and navel–gazing after elimination from a major tournament, asking itself why its players aren’t capable of the high technique common elsewhere, the truths aren’t difficult to stumble upon.

Show me kids playing football in the street in the UK and you may have to sift through the archives of Pathe News, however on the poorer streets of Africa and throughout Latin America in Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, it’s still the lifeblood and provider of their football talent.

Despite a sad week in Ethiopia in which a team lost a bright, shining light on the pitch and a leader off it, and with its players starting a long fight against physical and mental scars that will last months if not years, the essential truth is that there is still much beauty, innocence and magical about how football is played here.

One player’s death won’t change that, indeed his greatest legacy in my eyes, and I didn’t know him personally, is in holding a mirror up to that very truth.

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