Ethiopia coach Wubetu Abate said on Wednesday his players were like “football soldiers” determined to do their best at the Africa Cup of Nations for a country wracked by a brutal war.
“We’re here like soldiers, focused on what we’re representing, our country, but from a football perspective,” Abate said on the eve of his team’s second match against hosts Cameroon in Group A.
“When you touch the ball you forget right away what’s happening away from the pitch, we’re staying focused on that,” he added.
Ethiopia are making their first appearance at the tournament since 2013, and lost their opening match 1-0 to Cape Verde in Yaounde.
“There are political conflicts in the country. It affects everyone, it affects us as human beings,” continued Abate.
“But honestly, when I see our flag at such a beautiful tournament, among the best 24 teams in Africa, I’m proud.”
The Ethiopia squad arrived in Cameroon on 26 December “because we couldn’t prepare anywhere else”, said Abate.
“We’ve come to compete in this big tournament which means a lot for our country which is facing a conflict.”
Northern Ethiopia has been beset by conflict since November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray after accusing the region’s dissident ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of attacks on federal army camps.
The fighting between forces loyal to Abiy and the TPLF and their allies has killed thousands of people and forced several million from their homes since it erupted.
Tigray is under what the United Nations calls a de facto blockade that is preventing life-saving medicine and food from reaching millions, including hundreds of thousands in famine-like conditions.
“As citizens we want our country to be at peace,” said midfielder Mesud Mohammed.
“Our government has supported us to be here. It’s our mission, we want to make them proud by giving everything on the pitch.”