Amongst the marquee mid-season transfers of the Ethiopian Premier League, reigning champions Jimma Abba Jifar unveiled the return of their star striker after his short spell at Ismaily SC. In normal circumstances, this would have been a great development for both the club and league. Okiki Afolabi was immense in Jimma’s sensational title victory as he scored 23 goals to become the league’s top-scorer in his first season in Ethiopia. Including his four-goal salvo in a title-deciding 5-0 win against Adama City in the final day, Okiki netted more than half of Jimma’s goals in the season.
But his initial departure from Jimma made the return rather bewildering for those in the circle of Ethiopian football. The release letter that was presented by the player had a forged signature of the Ethiopian club’s official and the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) subsequently banned him for six months. The Nigerian striker, somehow, got away from a FIFA transfer ban, too, but he could only manage to feature for a mere 259 minutes in the first half of the season – none in the Champions League – for Egyptian side Ismaily.
When the chance appeared for Jimma to get back the service of the striker, who was also courted by some of the big Ethiopian clubs before the transfer fiasco, they never looked back. His wrongdoing was forgotten in the space of few months as Jimma fans now expect the powerful striker to dominate the league in the same way he did the previous season. After lifting the title in their first season back in the top-flight, Jimma struggled to cope with a major squad overhaul in the wake of players’ departure and they are now out of both continental tournaments.
Omna Taddele is a freelance football journalist who featured on BBC African Football and CAF websites. Back in August 2018, he did an exclusive story for Bisrat Sport to uncover the details to Okiki’s attempt of getting a release from Jimma that was caught by EFF’s Transfer Matching System (TMS). The fact that Okiki is back with no trace is what to expect from the football governing body’s ineptness for the guy who knows the inside out of Ethiopian football.
“His case is a bit peculiar.” Omna said. He added that the response, or lack thereof, to previous mischiefs from the football federation left him to expect the worst in such situations. “A player who tried to use a forged signature to make a lucrative move to Egypt returning back as if he didn’t do anything? Impersonating someone’s signature is a criminal offense but EFF and clubs already have long-standing tradition of being too lenient so it’s not much of a surprise here.”
With the exception of last season’s cup winners Mekelakeya, the extensive recruiting of players from abroad is done by all the top-flight clubs and beyond to the lower-tier divisions – former St. George striker Eric Muranda played a huge role in Debub Police’s promotion to this season’s Premier League. In the same rate, it’s usual to see these players in the headlines for wreaking havoc after a lucrative deal brought them to Ethiopia. Togolese striker Arafat Djako was the star player when Wolaitta Dicha stunned giants Zamalek SC in the preliminary round of the Confederation Cup but there were reports emerging from the club that labeled him as a troublemaker.
“St. George replaced two of their foreign players before January and Ethiopian Coffee is also not happy with the form of the two strikers they welcomed at the start of the season.” Omna explained. He sees a continual dip in Ethiopian clubs’ recruitment strategy as he went on: “It’s becoming very disappointing. St. George used to bring good players from Eastern African countries by scouting best performers from the CECAFA Cup. In recent years, they opted to turn their attention to West African players and they only rely on old video footages as they don’t send scouts to actually see the players in action. That really opened the door for mediocre players to surge in big numbers.”
Djako is now plying his trade at Bahir Dar Kenema F.C., his experience and finishing prowess has helped the newcomers get off to a decent start in top-flight football. Meanwhile, despite spending the majority of the first half of the season as league leaders, Ethiopia Coffee only managed to score eleven goals in fourteen league outings. With this in mind, they recruited Burundian striker Hussein Shabani for the second half of the season.
Omna’s view is also shared by Soccer Ethiopia journalist Yonatan Mulugeta. “There is no outlined policy in our clubs of scouting players from abroad.” He is starting to believe that some of the clubs are adding these players in the squad “as if it’s a rule to use all the five players quota”. Yonatan insisted that it’s the burden that comes with players’ fat contracts that is forcing the clubs to issue repetitive warning letters for their disciplinary and performance issues before reaching decisions.
The main focus area when clubs sign players from abroad is in either end of the goals, which also left many to think of its effect on the talent pool to choose from for the national team coaches. When Jimma Abba Jifar sent Okiki to Egypt earlier in the summer, they signed former Mali international Mamadou Sidibé from Morocco and Didier Lebri from relegated side Ethio Electric.
The struggle for playing time for local players is even bigger if they happened to be goalkeepers. “Obviously it’d help if Abraham Mebratu (national team coach) and his coaching staff could have sixteen options (one per club) instead of three for the goalkeeping spot but that is still not enough to help him get the best custodian.” Yonatan insists. In his eyes, there were similar problems even when most Ethiopian clubs use local players for those positions. But he agrees on the need to nurture and trust local players while restricting imports.
“Considering the level of our football, it’s easy to expect little when a player came here from rather successful nations like Ghana and Nigeria. But, still, we witnessed some players who really made their impact in some of our clubs.” Yonatan adds. “We also saw players in the other spectrum when they really create problems both in their performances and off-the-pitch behaviors. Unfortunately, the ignorant and hasty scouting methods by our clubs mean we are getting more of these players in recent years”.
Mekelle 70 Enderta – under their previous name Mekelle City – were one of the teams who gave Jimma an intense title race until the final weeks of last season with the big help of their foreign players. But, according to Robel Birhane, who regularly attends their games in Mekelle Stadium, they are having little success with their latest signings. “In last season’s entertaining side, Bismark Oppong and Fuseini Nuhu really made a connection with fans and they both were doing fine.
“But the Ghanaian Mawuli Osei is hugely disappointing this term and he’s already starting to warm the bench. You could also say the same about defender Amos Obour, who was much better in the second half of last season” Robel responded with frustration. “The only bright side is Equatorial Guinea’s goalkeeper Felipe Ovono. He’s Mekelle’s best player alongside the mercurial attacker Amanuel Gebremikael.” he adds.
In general, most of the best foreign players to grace the Ethiopian Premier League were goalkeepers. Ugandan international Denis Onyango, who managed to win some of the biggest personal accolades in African football, had a brief stint at St. George in the start of his career. But it was Robert Odonkora who wrote his name in the club’s history as he was the undisputed best shot-stopper in the league over the years. When he left for Adama City in the summer, the 14-time Premier League champions replaced him with Kenyan international Patrick Matasi after their earlier attempt to land Ghanian custodian Mohammed Muntari failed to materialize.
For Omna, the one thing the clubs could try at this point is bringing in a new form of goalkeeping coaching as it’s clear that there is a pattern emerging with both the lack of trust on them and failed training routines. Although he is not against the proposed ban on signing foreign custodians, he insists on implementing the right plan to promote Ethiopian goalies. Robel adds a further point to this argument that most of the contracts given to the players (both for local and foreign) in Ethiopia are short-term, which affects the consistency and left teams with successive rebuilding.
The form of the only club that continue to held themselves from signing foreign players in the league also intensified the debate. After the cup was abandoned in 2012 because of a tight schedule, Mekelakeya won three of the last six tournaments. They are also one of the teams who made a name for playing attractive football, although the recent few weeks haven’t been kind for Seyoum Kebede’s side as they conceded five goals in three separate occasions since the turn of the year. On their continental adventure, however, they disappointed in each of these occasions with early exits against modest opponents, which might not be helped with the lack of players with experience of African football.
Yonatan also feels Mekelakeya’s policy might have its impact in their Confederation Cup exits as they “lacked mental strength”. By pointing out that there is not much improvement gained from imports by clubs representing Ethiopia in recent years, Robel asks “what’s the point of constantly recruiting players from abroad if the teams are not going to do well in African competitions?”. But both think it should be better for Mekelakeya to recruit young players and have consistent form in the league for other clubs to follow suit.
The clubs’ tendency to go for foreign players without tracing them in detail also led some to take advantage of the situation. In another exclusive story for Bisrat Sport, Omna disclosed the intent of a group of “players” who claimed to be from Ivory Coast’s second division side. “The players came in two groups …” Omna recalled the story. “The first one arrived in March 2018 and tried to stay here for few weeks and travel to Georgia. But after they failed to acquire an entry visa to Georgia, they stayed here for months.
“They tried to get a club in Ethiopia, although they didn’t get any offers. But they did manage to play a few games with top-flight sides here by claiming that they are Ivorian second-tier outfit. The Ivorian FA stated it has commenced an investigation on the players and their agents but we are yet to find out about their findings.” Omna concluded.
Image Credit: http://www.ethiosports.com/2018/07/16/jimma-aba-jifar-wins-ethiopian-premier-league-title/