Iffy Onuora: Antelopes' big game revival

Ethiopia have qualified for the African Cup of Nations - which starts next week - for the first time in 30 years, an amazing effort given the hurdles they've had to overcome as their former manager tells Robin Scott-Elliot

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Nobody does footballing nicknames quite like Africa. It was three months ago that the Walya Antelopes scored twice in the space of four minutes in Addis Ababa to wipe out the first-leg advantage held by the Falcons of Jediane and complete one of the continent's most unexpected sporting revivals.

While some of the monikers are flamboyant, others aspirational and some just extraordinary – the Wild Beasts of the Central African Republic – Ethiopia's Antelopes are named for an animal that came close to extinction and remains endangered, a sure-footed breed largely restricted to a mountain range in the north of Africa's second most populous country.

It is a country whose struggles with famine and civil war were for a time synonymous with its continent's image. Within that wider context Ethiopia's most popular sport, which its team and administrators helped first establish in Africa 60 years ago, suffered too and even when peace, along with a slow spread of relative prosperity, was restored to the country, football slipped and slithered in a mess of its own making as it sought to regain its footing.

It is only three years since Ethiopia returned to the international game after being banned by Fifa over infighting among its then shambolic federation; two years since Iffy Onuora, the former Huddersfield and Gillingham striker, was presented with a training pitch with cattle grazing in the centre circle in the early days of his time as the country's coach. Yet here they are in the finals of the African Cup of Nations, preparing for an opening fixture in Nelspruit against Zambia, the defending champions, a week on Monday.

They earned their final place with a belated comeback against Sudan – those Falcons – two second-half goals levelling a 5-3 deficit from the away leg and sending them to South Africa for their first Cup of Nations finals for 30 years.

"I am delighted for them," says Onuora, now a PFA coach. "Hopefully, this will give the game there a massive shot in the arm. There is a lot of raw talent but, like a lot of countries in Africa, there are problems relating to administration. The talent is there but it is a question of harnessing it.

"Ethiopia is obviously known for its track and field but it's a football-crazy country. You only have to walk around Addis to see they are obsessed with the Premier League. Football is a big thing, in many ways the main thing."

Onuora, born in Glasgow to Nigerian parents, was in charge for nearly a year, winning five of his 11 games before being dismissed for "disciplinary reasons" following a 4-0 defeat by African heavyweights Nigeria. He told a British newspaper the story of the cows and the pitch. It was one told with a light touch – it took place during the monsoon season outside the capital Addis, where facilities such as all-weather playing surfaces are scarce – but then blown out of proportion. His employers were not amused as to how their game was portrayed and that was given as one of the reasons for Onuora's departure.

He recently published the journal he kept of his year in east Africa – There Are Cows On The Pitch, They Think It's All Over… It Is Now – and looks back largely with fondness on his tenure despite the abrupt and unexpected conclusion.

"I loved working there – the players were a delight to work with," says Onuora. "There were other aspects that were not always easy to deal with. It was a great life experience. I met some wonderful people who are still friends."

It was an at times surreal existence, from having Robert Mugabe – in town with his gun-toting guards for an African Union conference – as a neighbour in the Addis hotel in which he lived, to trying to make sure all players had passports for away games, to spending weekends watching matches played one after the other in the national stadium. All eight Addis teams in the top flight are based at the ground and play one after the other. Then there was his driver, a constant companion, who kept him informed as to who was who among the men who ran the game.

"It is like a Martian arriving in English foot- ball and having to get a handle on it, working out who runs what, who funds what," says Onuora. As he prepared for the job in the summer of 2010, he took to googling his players to try to learn more about them. It proved in vain – this was a step into the unknown.

There were frustrations during his time surrounding facilities, which are improving thanks to assistance from Fifa's Goal project – including the building of all-weather surfaces, vital in a country that has a long rainy season – and, indeed, the Premier League which has given financial help and held coaching seminars. There are difficulties too in attempting to arrange any sort of friendlies for the national side.

He found a group of able players with minimal international experience, in part due to the country being banned from playing in 2008 and 2009 by Fifa.

The squad was all but entirely based at home, another defining limit on broadening their competitiveness. But the appetite for the game was there. After Onuora and the squad returned from reaching the last four of a regional competition, which included a victory over Zambia, a large crowd turned up at the airport to welcome them back.

Victory over Sudan was welcomed even more rapturously, with thousands of supporters thronging into Meskel Square, a vast, Soviet-style open space in the centre of Addis. Such a response to a footballing success was a first but it is far from a first footballing success for Ethiopia. The country was one of the founding members of the African confederation and played in the first Cup of Nations in 1957. It has hosted the event three times and in 1962 lifted the trophy – as hosts, it was presented to Mengistu Worku, their greatest player, by Haile Selassie himself. Worku was manager 20 years later when they last qualified for the finals. Then came the wilderness years.

Internal squabbling within the federation was accompanied by a managerial casualty rate to make Roman Abramovich blanch – Onuora was one of 15 to hold the post in 11 years. But, overseen by Fifa, the federation has reformed and laid solid foundations. There is greater stability on the playing side too under the guidance of Sewnet Bishaw, a home-grown coach.

"We designed a strategic plan on where we are, where we went wrong and how we can improve. Today's improvement is the result of what we did," said Sahilu Gebremariam, the federation's president.

There is a rose-tinted realism to ambitions on and off pitch, with plans to build a new 60,000-seat stadium in Addis, with further ground improvements across the country. Better facilities will help improve the player base, while the chance to play in a major finals gives players the opportunity to catch the eye of clubs in the likes of South Africa and Egypt – players and coaches need wider experience.

Sewnet has had a spell in Yemen but otherwise learnt his trade at home. The Egyptian-based Saladin Said, the team's star, is one of only three to play abroad. Another, Yussuf Saleh, who was born in Sweden where he still plays, could be the first of many from the Ethiopian diaspora attracted home as the team and federation continue to improve.

Onuora writes of his time there being "magical", despite the lack of a happy ending. There is unlikely to be a happy ending either to Ethiopia's visit to South Africa – though a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Tunisia this week suggests some potential – but being there is achievement enough because it means Ethiopian football is no longer on the endangered list.

Running wild: Key players

Saladin Said

The 24-year-old striker is the side's main source of goals. Scored what proved the decisive goal in the play-off against Sudan that earned a finals place. Plays in the Egyptian Super League for Wadi Degla.

Adane Girma

Once a holding midfielder, the 27-year-old has formed a good partnership with Said since being pushed forward. Scored in both legs against Sudan. Plays for St George, Ethiopia's biggest club, who provide nine of the squad for South Africa.

Fuad Ibrahim

Born in Ethiopia but raised in the US, the 21-year-old forward played for the States up to Under-20 level before committing himself to the country of his birth. Plays for Minnesota Stars in the second tier of US football.