The residents of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hold a passion for a game invented 3814 miles away, a far cry from the hectic hustle and bustle of this rapidly developing city. It is a game played in a nation which very few have been within 3000 miles off visiting, and in Ethiopia where annual incomes average £607, less than the value of some season tickets, television provides the only means to watch the drama unfold. Yes, football and more precisely the Premier League is arguably supported as vociferously and as ardently as it is in England. The teams of choice are Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, but an understanding of the whole league, its dramas, gossip, outrageous transfer fees and wealthy owners is reeled of like a list by Addis locals with telepathic precision.
On Saturday the 28th of May, Wembley, the iconic stadium and the home of English football was hosting the eagerly anticipated Champions League final. Manchester United and Barcelona, two of the most revered teams on the planet would be going head to head for the European crown. The anticipation for the match was omnipresent days before the event. The hotel attendant informed me that two years ago in Rome, when Manchester United were defeated 2-0 by Barcelona, he was stricken to tears.
This level of passion is not uncommon and walking through the streets of Addis Ababa, talk of the Champions League final was unavoidable. It was the binding topic of conversation outside a local restaurant, where 5 men discussed the tactics that each manager would use. As a faranji, a term colloquially used to refer to people from Europe and the USA, I am often asked which team my allegiance lies with. Unfortunately Tottenham Hotspur are not as popular as their north London rivals, but not unlike being in London, playful swipes at each others respective teams often emerge. The Premier League teams are the most supported in Addis Ababa, although the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid command a healthy fan base, it is undeniably the former which are most followed.
Violence between opposing fans in the Premier League has in the past tainted the leagues image. Two years ago, two fans were stabbed as violence erupted between fans of Manchester United and Arsenal, but this was not on the streets of Islington, London. Instead, it was Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a city where supporters immense passions for their respective teams have in the past escalated into violence. This is even more surprising when you consider that Ethiopia is a country where people are very peaceful and calm, and Addis Ababa, a city where violent crime is very low.
A two hour time difference meant that the Champions League action did not get underway until 9:45 pm local time. Nonetheless, people of all ages cram into one of the many sports bars which are screening the game. The match is shown on an old 32 inch TV and roughly a hundred chairs are set up to cater for the supporters. The entire venue, which can be loosely compared to a Marquee in structure is packed to the brim with eager supporters of both teams. The atmosphere is electric, Manchester United fans easily comprise of the majority, and they clap every pass, tackle and challenge made.
The first ten minutes of the game, in which Manchester United were able to temporarily dominate Barcelona was reflected in the immense atmosphere created by the supporters. Unfortunately for the majority of those watching, Barcelona soon took control of the match and exerted themselves. They pressed relentlessly and were able to score the first goal, which was met by a dozen celebrating Barcelona fans who suddenly burst into life. The rest of the crowd sat motionless, one supporter threw his arm to the side hitting the Marquee wall, evidently an unhappy Manchester United Fan. The trophy looked to be heading back to the Catalan capital, until out of the blue a moment of Wayne Rooney industry and brilliance gifted Manchester United with an equalling goal. The moment the ball hit the net the whole crowd rose in euphoria, hugging their friends, United supporters clambered onto their chairs with arms outstretched and emphatically pumping the air. I was swept up in the sea of euphoria and celebrated the goal like a dedicated Manchester United fan.
This moment of amazing celebration was the anomaly in a game which saw Barcelona cruise to a 3-1 victory. Melaku, a local club promoter and traditional Ethiopian dancer informed me that had United emerged victorious, the streets would be glowing in the night with the colours of red and white. I do not question him for a second; it certainly would have been a party to remember. Nevertheless, the goal was enough to provide an insight into the unequivocal passion of the fans here. Football, with all its problems and controversy, has the potential to unite people from all backgrounds and the Premier League, has undeniably captivated football fans here in Addis Ababa.