Can Ethiopia really make the World Cup?

Having begun their qualification way back in November few expected the Black Lions of Ethiopia to still be standing – yet they are now just a possible 180 minutes from a first ever appearance at football’s biggest spectacle.

Of the ten sides still standing, only the Ethiopians competed in the first round of African qualification – a playoff round contested between the lowest 30 ranked African sides. Further to that when the big boys entered in round two Ethiopia were placed in pot four for the draw, a pot designated to the lowest ranked sides.

In truth they were fortunate that the top seeds in their group were South Africa rather than one of the current African powers, whilst Botswana were hardly the most threatening of second seeds. That said you cannot take away the fact that Ethiopia are the only side still standing to have not been placed in the top two pots when the initial group stage draw was made.

As early as the first fixture Ethiopia outlined their threat holding group leaders South Africa to a 1-1 draw in Rustenburg – from there, they never looked back. In the return fixture the Black Lions clinched a 2-1 victory which had seemingly booked their spot in the final round. Yet such is the way in African football scandal was never far away, with it being revealed that Getaneh Kebede had been picked against Botswana, despite quite remarkably being suspended – just imagine England picking Danny Welbeck in Ukraine and you start to see quite how remarkable that story is.

That rule break saw Ethiopia lose the three points they gained from that contest, which allowed South Africa a lifeline. The Ethiopians were still top of the group going into their final fixture in Central African Republic, however any slip up coupled with a likely Bafana Bafana win at home to Botswana would see their campaign end.

South Africa did their bit and at half time it seemed that winning the group for a second time was beyond Ethiopia, as they trailed by a goal to nil. Sewnet Bishaw’s men though showed a quite remarkable level of resolve as goals from the prolific Said Saladin and the previous villain of the piece Kebede ensured a spot in the final round. It should not be undervalued just what a superb effort that was mentally by Ethiopia to refocus themselves after seeing qualification snatched away, after all that was something that the experienced Tunisians could not achieve in a similar final day clash.

Cape Verde will take the plaudits as the story of the round, however whilst they possess several players based in Europe – Ethiopia are made up of almost solely domestic based personnel. Only Saladin and Asrat Gobena are based outside of African, with the former on the books at Lierse in Belgium and the later in Israel. Not only is the group largely African based, the vast majority of the youthful squad compete in the Ethiopian league.

When you consider the resources available it is hard not to be taken aback by the achievement – this is a side who at the time of reaching the final ten were not even ranked in the top 100 of the world rankings.

Progress into the actual finals does look tough, given the likes of Ivory Coast and Ghana could lie in wait – however there is also the possibility of a more than winnable tie against fellow minnows Cape Verde, whilst Algeria would also present a reasonable draw even though the Desert Foxes would be favourites for that one.

They certainly have history and experience of play-offs in recent years, having made their first African Cup of Nations since 1982 by coming through two rounds of playoff fixtures. The second of those against neighbours Sudan was an undoubted pressure situation and although their final challenge is likely to be significantly tougher, this is a squad with a terrific sense of togetherness and spirit who will enter the contest without fear.

Whatever happens it is refreshing to see such an unknown quantity having such success, particularly in an age when the element of a surprise is not so apparent in the African game given the globalisation of football.