Ethiopian Soccer Games in North America

Elias Kifle | June 17th, 1993

By Fikre Tolossa
Ethiopian Review, June 1993

It has now become a tradition for the Ethiopian Community in North America to hold an annual soccer tournaments in different cities in the United States and Canada. For some, this event is purely sport. For others, it is an opportunity for business transaction. For the great majority, it is an opportunity to meet old friends, get together and have fun.

What makes this year’s event outstanding is the fact that the Federation is celebrating the 10th Anniversary of its inception, and this takes place in one of the most beautiful areas of the U.S.A. — the Bay Area, which includes Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. The actual site of the stadium is in Newark, about 30 minutes drive from Oakland and not far away from the Airport Hilton where most of the players will stay. On top of this, the host of this year’s event, Walia, the San Francisco Bay Area team, has special programs hitherto unheard of in such football events in the Ethiopian Community of North America.

According to Ato Dagnachew Bezabeh, the Public Relations Officer of the Ethiopian Football Federation in North America (EFFNA), some of the programs which the Walia team planned for the first time include children’s short distance race, 800 meters run for women and 400 to 1500 meters for men. In addition, there will be health care including free medical checkups, fully equipped ambulance with physicians on site, as well as child care service for children aged three to twelve. The child care service will relieve parents to help them move freely by keeping the children busy with games and tours to the zoo.

Ato Seleshi Mengiste, President of the Executive Committee of the Walia Club which is organizing all these programs, told me that members of the Committee have put in a great deal of efforts in order to coordinate the various new programs planned for this year. According to Ato Seleshi, his Committee has obtained the approval of EFFNA and kept regular contacts with the EFFNA Executive Committee often holding meetings through teleconference with the members who reside in two countries and five states.

Ato Hassen Beshir, the Public Relations Officer of the Walia team, said that he and his colleagues would not have succeeded in their effort to organize the event without the assistance and cooperation of Ethiopians, American businesses and professional associations in the Bay Area.

There will be a host of musicians from Ethiopia, the U.S.A. and Canada. A theater group which consists of Teferi Alemu and Kurabachew Deneke from Yehager Feker Theater, Djemanesh Solomon from The City Hall Theater and Mulualem Tadesse from the National Theater will stage a comedy show entitled “Yechagula Shirshir,” adopted by Teferi Alemu. My latest three-act play, Sergegna Teff, which reflects the socio-political upheaval in Ethiopia for the past two years and which suggests that the peoples of Ethiopia are one and the same, will be performed by talented Ethiopian actors probably at the Parkway Theater in Oakland. In addition, I will recite my poems and tales about life, love, friendship, time and patroitism, which I have recited in the past 23 years in Ethiopia, Russia, and Europe and the U.S. The legendary masinko player, Derbabaw Abunu, will accompany me with his masinko and a repertoire of witty lyrics. The distinguished Ethiopian painter, Wosene Kosrof, will exhibit some of his works at the Oakland Hilton and at the internationally famous Bomani Art Gallery of San Francisco. There will be a “Miss Ethiopia Beauty Contest” for the first time. A large number of ex-members of the American Peace Corps Volunteers will also participate in the event as the soccer week coincides with their conference

According to Dagnachew this year’s guests of honor will be Kebede Metaferia, a former Ethiopian soccer star and Derartu Tulu, a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics. Kebede Metaferia and Derartu Tulu will give trophies and medals to the winning teams and individuals. The two star athletes will be welcomed at the Oakland Airport by local American women organizations and the Executive Committee of EFFNA. The San Francisco Walia Club will receive each of the participant teams from the various states at the airport with wreaths. The Club has already reserved the Oakland Hilton and the Convention Center to accommodate some of the participants of this event. However, because of the great number of music promoters and sponsors, the organizers of the event are faced with shortage of recreation halls. The booths for vendors at the stadium have already been allocated, and the waiting list is too long. Up to 20,000 people are expected to attend this year’s event.

This annual event which begins on Monday, June 28 and ends on July 4, 1993 has the potential to generate funds for various causes such as helping the dismissed Addis Abeba University faculty and orphans in Ethiopia.

The first Ethiopian soccer tournament in North America was held in Houston, Texas, in the Summer of 1983. In its 10-year existence, even though the Federation’s activities have been increasing from year to year, it has been criticized for favoritism, mismanagement and financial scandal by some. Critics of the Federation charge that a team loyal to it or the one that it favors can maneuver easily to host the event. They also charge the Federation of misusing funds, not providing receipt of claimed expenses, not filling the Internal Revenue Service forms as a non-profit entity, not having a certified public accountant to audit the funds, and not limiting the terms of its officers

I mentioned some of these allegations to Ato Birhanu Woldemariam, one of the founders of the Federation and its current President. Ato Berhanu said that, “The allegation that we favor one team over another is unfounded. We are fair to every team. We abide by the rules and regulations of the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA), even though we have our own bylaws.” According to Ato Berhanu, the Federation has 24 board of directors representing all the 24 teams. The board of directors select 7 members of the executive committee. The board of directors and the executive committee have set rules and criteria by which a team will be qualified to host the tournament.

Berhanu explains that, “Some of the criteria besides seniority are the number of Ethiopian population and restaurants of the area where the would-be host team is located, the extent of participation of both the local Ethiopian and American communities in the event, the availability of recreation halls and hotels with reduced prices, the size and closeness of the stadium to recreation halls and the hotels where the players stay.

“The federation sends three of its executive committee members ahead of time to study which candidates could fulfill the criteria and makes its decision based on their report as to who could be best qualified to host the year’s event. This year’s host, the San Francisco Walia Club, was chosen accordingly. Even though the population of the Ethiopian Communities of Los Angeles and San Diego are larger than that of the Bay Area, two of the candidates from Los Angeles and San Diego, Abebe Bikila and Tewodros, didn’t qualify for the reasons given above.”

According to Berhanu the federation is supposed to collect all of the income as of this year, in accordance with a unanimous resolution made by the 24 board members of the Federation in Toronto about a year ago. None of the host teams has the right to share profit with the Federation.

To the question whether it is fair for Walia to work so hard and not share the profit with the Federation, Ato Berhanu responds that, “the Federation has allowed Walia to keep the money it makes selling sodas and booths for vendors on top of the share it will receive together with the other 23 teams. Furthermore, since the team is this year’s host, it can save a few thousand dollars, which it would have spent on transportation, food and lodging if another team in another city was hosting the match.

“The Federation has a good reason for not sharing the profit with the host teams this year, unlike other years. It must save money to finance the transportation, food and lodging of the 24 teams in the future in order to encourage them to participate every year. That is our goal. Other wise, the Federation will go bankrupt, and the number of the participating teams will dwindle.

“Inspite of the fact that we have an auditor, Dr. W.M. Akalou, who is a member of the Executive Committee, last year we have employed and we will employ again this ear, a certified public accountant to audit our finance and to declare our income. Up until recently we did not expect the football event to grow at such a terrific speed. So, we did not take things seriously. Since we now realize that the soccer week is a great phenomenon for our community, we intend to organize ourselves in a better fashion.”

Birhanu says that, “The officers are elected every year. Some of the earliest members of the Executive Committee like Fisseha Wolde-Amanuel and others are no more in the Committee. As far as I am concerned, I have asked to resign at least two times but people who appreciated my service persuaded me to stay. Come what may, this is the last term I will serve.”

Walia’s President, Ato Seleshi Mengiste says that his team will win this year’s tournament since it has prepared better than the previous years. The head coach of the team, Ato Tesfaye Mekonen, did not speak with certainty as Ato Seleshi did. He told me that his team was well trained and that it had a great chance to win, but he could not predict for sure who would be the winner.

For the past ten years, the final winners of the game have been Dallas, Washington D.C., Los Angeles Ethiopian Star, Walia of San Francisco, Seattle and Virginia. Of these, Washington D.C. has won three times, and Los Angeles Ethiopian Star two times.

The present cup holder, Virginia, is indeed going to face very tough competitors this year in California. I expect a great game. Who do you think will win this year’s cup which bares the name of the late Solomon Tessema? I’ll bet the Walia Club will be the champion. Look for me if I lose the bet. If I win…
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Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean of Faculty at Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, CA. He is also Associate Editor of ER.