Playing football in war
It was a miracle to see Yemen – a war-torn country — have a national team let alone progress in competitions without the usual home stadium, fans and access to transportation. The national team of Yemen, against all odds, advanced to the group stages of the Asian Cup with Ethiopia-born coach, Abraham Meberatu, at the helm. After registering a win against the Maldives in the play-off round, Yemen was grouped with the Philippines, Tajikistan and Nepal. During the qualification, Abraham’s team won one and drew five collecting 10 points. Due to the war raging in the country for the past three years, the Yemen national team made Qatar its home base. Abraham has managed various clubs including Ethiopian Grain FC, Customs FC, Nyala FC, Wonji Sugar FC, Ethiopia Coffee and Ethiopian Insurance FC. He has also served as the assistant coach for the Ethiopian youth and national team. After his move to Yemen, he was appointed coach Al-Hilal FC in 2006. Since then, he has worked in various positions such as a technical director, coach for the Olympic national team and a coach for the senior national team. Dawit Tolesa of The Reporter sat down with Abraham to discuss his journey and his next plan. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tell us about your coaching practices in Ethiopia?
Abraham Meberatu: Well, I was coaching several clubs in Ethiopia especially division-based teams. Actually, my coaching career started with the football club called Ethiopian Grain C team. Our players were very talented and passionate during that time. Players like Dagmawi Ali and Anwar Yasin were with us and we won the Addis Ababa Youth Championship together. Then after, following a notice from Customs FC, I was appointed as an assistant coach in 1995. Later we were promoted to the Addis Ababa higher league; we stayed in the competition for a year. So, my coaching career started during that time.
You were appointed as an assistant coach to Ethiopia Coffee in 1996. Can you briefly walk us through the moment?
As we all know Ethiopia Coffee FC is big and has a massive fan base. So, when I got a chance to coach at the club, I felt it was a big deal for me and help me gain experience. It also gave me the chance to meet experienced coaches as well. So, I had a nice time with Coach Seyoum Abate and the players. We achieved East African club championship and won second place. During that time, we managed to beat the Egyptian giant Club Al-Ahly FC at the CAF Confederation Cup. After Seyoum resigned from the club, Ethiopia Coffee board members gave me a responsibility to lead the team but I could not perform well in the competition. So, I decided to leave the club because I was not good enough to manage the club at that moment.
In 2007 you moved to Yemen and was appointed to head Al- Hilal FC. How was your journey?
There were two people that helped me join the Yemen league. Those guys had contacts with Yemen club managers, but these clubs were only interested to sign players. Ethiopian player Birhanu Kasim was a top player during that time and he signed for this club. However, following the poor performance of the club, the manager was sacked and I joined Al-Hilal as the new manager. Before they hired me, they were looking at my past success and experiences achieved in African competitions with the national team. In that year, Al-Hilal became champions in club knock-out championships and after that we advanced to Asia Cup championships.
Following your appointment with Al-Hilal, you also managed Yemen Olympic national team. How did you get that opportunity?
Well, after my position in Al-Hilal FC; Yemen Football Association (YFA), appointed me as the manager of Yemen Olympic national team in 2008. I was also working as the technical director for the club. Generally, I was coaching the Olympic team for the last 8 years. Most of the Olympic team players were very talented and those players were directly selected to the national team.
What was the main reason that led for your appointment of the Olympic and Senior Yemen national team?
Obviously, it’s difficult to assign a new coach from abroad due to the current situation in the country. So, the national federation decided that I am skillful enough to coach the senior national team. In 2016, I took the responsibility of leading the national team with Olympic players. Taking the charge, we played different Asia qualifications and it was a do or die for us. Advancing in the Asia Cup competition was the only choice for Yemen national team to stay in international matches.
The Yemen senior national team has advanced to the Asian Cup. How do you see the result?
Honestly, it is historical moment for us, for every one and everybody was happy.
We all know for the past three years war has raged in Yemen. How was your preparation and how is your current squad?
It was very terrifying and we were touring from place to place due to the war. Now based in Qatar, we have started our preparation with the national team for the Asia Cup qualification. Qatar has agreed to let Yemen play its home matches in Qatar and also cover all expenses of the team. So, since 2016 we had conducted our preparations in Qatar.
What was the main challenge?
The main challenge was the lack of league competition in the country. It is very tough to select players. However, due to my long stay in the league I knew better players from past experience. So, that was the only choice at the moment. I only select three players from the national team and more players from the Olympic team. The existence of political instability in the country has hindered the performance of the players. So, I decided to have a permanent 40 player roaster and select the ones in-form for every match. The other challenges we faced was the lack of a home base closer to the fans and no friendly matches to help catch form. Our fans in Qatar were Yemeni’s and Ethiopians who lived in Qatar.
Your team drew with Iran, Vietnam and Iraq in Asian Cup of group D. How do you see it and what do you expect?
Well, the Iranian national team is very experienced. Their coach helped the team get promoted twice in the World Cup. The Iraqi national team also is not easy to beat since they have an experience playing in the Olympics. Even though, both clubs have experience in Asian Cup, winning the tournaments and reaching the final stage; we will try our best.
What is your next plan with the Yemen national team?
Well, now my focus is on our preparation and the coming June; where the Yemen board member, technical directors and I will have meeting. I am working as both a manager and a technical director. This was the result of a war in the country. But, as we know FIFA does not allow such things. Hence, my next stay with the team will be decided in the coming meeting with the board.
What do you want to say about the current Ethiopian football?
As I am a CAF elite instructor, I am not far from Ethiopian football. Because, I am giving a coaching course of A, B and C license for the local coaches. Ethiopia has many potential players. Technically, as we can observe all club managers and coaches are not active in evaluating their team at the end of each competition. They always get back to competing without evaluating their previous years’ weaknesses. Another, problem is every manager always waits for a yearly coaching training from FIFA and CAF. They have to follow the current style of coaching in every month. For the last 16 months they were not getting any training. So, it is difficult to expect results from those coaches. The last thing we need to focus on is our federation and its stability. We don’t need an on and off national team. We need a consistent national team especially in our young players.