Ethiopia confident despite challenges
They may be smaller than the Nigerians, slower than the Zambians and have fewer professional players than most rivals, but Ethiopia are committed to excelling at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
It is the first time the Horn of Africa squad has qualified for the pan-African tournament in 31 years, and though the odds might be stacked against them, the Walias Antelopes – named after an endangered antelope endemic to Ethiopia's northern mountains – are confident they will defy expectations and proceed to the knock-out stage of the tournament.
"We are going to face a lot of challenges and we have been away from the competition for a long time," striker Adane Girma told AFP.
"But we have good morale, a good mentality and we are very strong, so we can face any kind of challenge," he added, sweat glistening on his forehead after practice at the national stadium in Addis Ababa.
In a rare and unexpected feat, the Walias beat Sudan 2-0 last October in the Ethiopian capital, prompting thousands of jubilant fans to pour into the streets to celebrate.
They are now preparing to face title holders Zambia on January 21 in South African city Nelspruit.
Though Zambia is a stronger team, Girma said his squad is focused on beating them in order to move on to matches against twice champions Nigeria and perennial underachievers Burkina Faso in the same group.
"We are just thinking about finishing that first game on top and then later think about Nigeria or Burkina Faso," he said.
Star striker Saladin Said added that he remains unfazed by the threat posed by stronger teams.
"We are not bothered by the names, our only focus is to win," he told AFP.
But coach Sewnet Bishaw said that despite the team's confidence the Walias still lack international experience and boast few professional players.
"Our players are young and they are less experienced with international matches like (the Cup of Nations)," he said.
The team has only one international player – Said, who plays for Wadi Degla in Egypt.
Bishaw said his team's strengths, however, are in their passing and strong defence, which helped them draw a friendly against 2004 champions Tunisia in Qatar this month, and make them formidable competitors at the Africa Cup.
The draw against Tunisia was a "huge boost", according to Girma.
And he is not prepared to stop there: he has his sights set on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
"We are leaders in the World Cup qualification group, and hopefully we are going to qualify for the World Cup," he said.
But if they do not come out on top, Bishaw said the tournament is an opportunity for Ethiopia – a country better known for churning out world-class long distance runners than footballers – to prove their clout on the football pitch.
"The mood is 100% – they want to show their talent and sell their personality to the world," he said, adding that their participation in the Cup of Nations is a source of major national pride.
"We have tried many times to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, we have tried many different types of coaches, including professionals from abroad – but now we are all locals here, we made it, so it's a great thing for our nation," he said, breaking into a wide smile.