The Flourishing Women’s Football

As a young girl who grew up under magnanimous care and freedom, Bizuhan Endale enjoyed having her family around. She cherished the time she had with them and the warmth they gave her, until she reached a point where she came head to head with societal values and accepted norms.

Bizuhan was not your typical girl. Her heart was in another place she was made to run off with the boys in her neighborhood, to the football fields with the boys in her neighborhood and play all day long. Soon she was to be immersed in her football obsession, a game that is believed to have driven millions crazy. She was smacked in the head, pinched, and scolded many times for her love of the game but never once thought about quitting, which created a serious dispute with her parents.

“Thanks to my older brother who supported me, after the sudden death of my father, my mom started to see and then accepted my passion for soccer,” she says. Cutting your hair in a short, matuta style, wearing fashionably shredded pants, and looking like a body builder is what has been long thought revealing of sportswomen, particularly that of women footballers in Ethiopia. For deviating from what is considered to be normal behavior for young girls in Ethiopia, women football players face social problems in their day-to-day lives. Men, elder members of society, and parents in all social strata were vehemently disrespectful to young women footballers for various reasons. Traditional thinking, lack of awareness and poor sporting facilities remain the most critical challenges to women football players in Ethiopia.

These factors impacted the sport for years, to some extent this very sport remains one of the classical sectors where gender inequality is stifled in the country. Despite various historical accounts revealing the country’s ancient civilization in art, architecture, trade and governance, attaching the right value to women and their role in all of these was lagging far behind. Although the country had woman parliamentarians, artists, patriots and others in the past, the sport sector did not witness a female heroine until the likes of Derartu Tulu, who stood out at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, winning a gold medal in the 10000m. race.

This historic victory, although she was not the first woman to participate in the Olympic games, made her the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a long distance race. Her immense contribution in inspiring women to participate in sports also makes her a symbolic figure in the country. This huge impact has long taken root in her winning cousins, the Dibaba sisters, Terunesh Dibaba and Genzebe Dibaba.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia’s football is nowhere near the achievements of its athletics, both in the men and women categories. A country that founded the African Cup of Nations (CAF) along with Egypt and Sudan in 1957 is still struggling to find a top-ten spot in continental tournaments. Nevertheless, the recent triumph that saw the country back in its place in the African Cup of Nations, after thirty-one years of absence, enormously motivated the general public. As a result, the Ethiopian Football Federation took an aggressive step to develop both men’s and women’s football in the country. Part of this was to commission a ger female national football league known as the Women’s Premier League. “This is the time that proudly witnesses our struggle,” Bizuhan reflects.

Being a captain of the National Women Football Team, nicknamed “Lucy” in reference to the Australopithecus fossil discovered in the Afar regional State in 1974 by Donald C. Johnson, the national team gave Bizuhan the opportunity to live her childhood dream the dream of being a famous woman footballer. Captain of her club side, Commercial Bank Women Football Club, and still maintaining her position in the national team, she plays an important role in mentoring youngsters.

In fact, the history of women’s soccer in Ethiopia dates back to the seventies as there were several amateur clubs playing at the time. Including the then most popular, Etu mela michi, roughly translated as a woman of solutions, few governmental and public organizations had women’s football teams in the capital championship. For many, why Ethiopian women soccer remained largely ignored can be traced back to its birth during the late seventies. Many young women who have never given up playing football despite unfavorable responses from the society have now managed to influence the federations and some clubs to promote amateur women’s football.

Following the success of the national women football team that qualified for the tenth African Championship hosted in Equatorial Guinea in 2012, women’s football started to attain wider acceptance in Ethiopia. Almost all participating clubs are obliged to form a women’s side if they want their male side to take part in the premiership. The attention given to women’s soccer is still in its infantile stage after a recent success the team had, Meskerem Tadesse, technique and development expert at the Ethiopian Football Federation, argues. Despite the first two women football leagues, this year’s women football tournament appears to be attracting a record high number of spectators.

The football federation that implemented the new regulation that required all teams to have a women’s side is getting praise from fans, stakeholders and coaches who sacrificed a lot to promote women’s football in Ethiopia. “I am so happy for what is being done by the football federation to promote women’s football,” instructor Selam Zereay, head coach of the St. George women’s football team says. Selam, who went through numerous obstacles to attain her dream as a player and coach expresses her delight over the current impressive condition of women’s football in Ethiopia. “In the past, it was related to something bad, inappropriate and disobedient,” she recalls.

Peculiarly, almost all women football players had trained with men before joining professional clubs in one way another. This seems to have shaken the shortsighted attitude towards women football players in Ethiopia, players claim. Perhaps because of the behavioral change widely observed by women football players when trained with men, parents fear that their daughters may deviate from traditional social norms. “Many people think that we are different from other girlfriends they obviously misunderstand,” Bizuhan explains. Until quite recent changes to the style, many women football players distance themselves from the rest of young women. As a result, men might not view these sportswomen as potential opposite sex companions. “We might act a little weird towards certain things but, at the end of the day, we are women with self-confidence, brilliance, and beauty,” she reiterates.

Selam, who succeeded in becoming one of the few female CAF instructors in Ethiopia, having completed the B-license course to become a coach, criticizes the perception that society cherishes. “Many of us have a far better opportunity to meet up with better people,” she says. According to coaches who have worked with both men and women football players, women appear to be more receptive to training routines than men. “I usually enjoy working with female players than male ones,” Berhanu Gizaw, head coach of Commercial Bank Women Football Team says. As an experienced coach who has trained both women and men football players for the past sixteen years, he attests to the fact that naturally, women can do anything in a more satisfying fashion. In this regard, he also touches on the contentious issue that makes many families oppose the idea of sending their daughters to a male coach.

Obviously, women football clubs are trained by male coaches worldwide, and charges on sexual harassment and abuse are hardly reported, though allegations are heard everywhere. The fact that football coaches (who are, of course, predominantly male) are so reluctant to voice their concerns about coaching girls might be because they interpret “equal opportunities” as meaning that all the children’s changes must be treated exactly the same, states Steve Watson, professional football writer based in the UK. In his article entitled “Gender issues in Youth Football Coaching,” he further states that coaches have contributed so much to women’s football across the UK, and that it had become the number one female participation sport in England.

In America where more than six million girls play football, the situation is the same, and male coaches are believed to have managed their girls in appropriate manners. Berhanu, a well-known and respected women football coach tells the difficulty of his job. “I would rather say the hardest part of the job is the misperception with some players, as if the coach is in a special relationship with the one who happened to receive extra attention for improvement,” he explained. All in all, the speculations always exist but there has never been tangible evidence to label any male coach in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Women Premier League this season features seventeen women soccer teams of which only three are trained by female coaches. “It has nothing to do with the concern except that female coaches are few in number,” Selam replies.

Many women football players and journalists who applaud the decision of the football federation to boost women’s football in Ethiopia however want to grant the credit to a prominent businessman who massively stimulated women soccer in the past. Abenet Germay (Ph.D.) who is best known as owner and president of Central University College is not matched by any in contributing his time, money and resources to the restoration of women’s football in Ethiopia. “He was the one who successfully laid the foundation for the current Ethiopian women’s football league,” Bizuhan Endale echoes.

Even if he was denied by the federation of having a women’s football team participating in the premier league under his company’s brand, Abenet has unquestionably left his print on women’s football in the nation. Many of the footballers playing for the premier league club side were part of his visionary project. “Many of us grew up in his club getting better access to education, salary and a promising future,” Bizuhan pays her tributes to Abenet, who has now replaced his women’s football team by a women’s athletics team.

Today, women in football look to be on a promising path in Ethiopia. This would bring about changes to the public attitude and economic contributions. Nevertheless, there are some hard-liner critics that say female football has no future in Ethiopia and that it would be better for resources to be focused on the male teams. To the contrary, others appreciate the parties who are actively working to boost women’s football in Ethiopia.

Mentioning the history of women’s football in England, a country famous for its Barclay’s Premier League football, where soccer is still widely considered a “man’s game,” and women are seen as marginal both as players and spectators, hails the beginnings and expect the future holds much prospects.

Source : The Reporter

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