In Ethiopia, Soccer Stadiums Have Become Political Battlefields : Parallels Protests have raged across Ethiopia for three years — and they're spilling over to the country's favorite sport.

In Ethiopia, Soccer Stadiums Have Become Political Battlefields

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For nearly three years, Ethiopia has faced unrelenting antigovernment protests. It's the most serious threat to the country's ruling coalition since it came to power in 1991. That has led to tens of thousands of arrests and left hundreds dead. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that the popular uprising has affected seemingly all aspects of life, including the country's favorite sport, soccer.


EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: This football stadium is in the heart of opposition territory in Ethiopia. On this recent Sunday, it is packed. Thousands of supporters crowd on wooden stands. And surrounding the pitch are dozens of paramilitary police - some with their guns in hand, others at the ready with tear gas canisters.


PERALTA: I take a seat next to Solomon (ph), an older man who asks that I only use his first name because in Ethiopia, talking about anything can get you in trouble with the government. I'm recording on a small handheld device so as not to draw attention.

SOLOMON: (Through interpreter) I came here to see the play, and most of the people came to see the play. But some other people are here to see the disruption.

PERALTA: After almost three years of protests, Ethiopia has become a deeply divided country. Football stadiums have become battlefields. And teams have become a proxy for the political divisions in the country. The 16 Premier League teams represent provinces largely drawn along ethnic lines. In this match, the home team, Adama, is from opposition territory. And Welwalo comes from an area dominated by Tigrayans - a minority ethnic group that controls much of the government.

SOLOMON: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: "It's the low-minded people who bring protest to stadiums," Solomon tells me. "It's the young guys who don't know that soccer is about peace." And just as we talk, Adama, the home team, scores. And for a moment at least, politics seems really far away.


PERALTA: A few days earlier, I met Mokaninet Berhe, a sportscaster in Ethiopia. He says fans travel hundreds of miles to see their teams.

MOKANINET BERHE: They support their clubs beyond their life. They are mad. They are mad. They are ultras.

PERALTA: And from the very beginning, soccer in Ethiopia has been synonymous with politics. Back in the 1930s, when Italy was trying to colonize the country, the St. George Sports Club defeated an Italian team. St. George became a symbol of Ethiopia's struggle for freedom.

BERHE: And St. George Football Club is the only one to make the Ethiopians to express their feelings.

PERALTA: In the '80s during the Red Terror days of the Derg regime, football again provided an outlet in a country where freedom of speech is deeply curtailed. Ethiopia is seeing some of the same things happening today. Fans are shouting antigovernment chants, and there have been deadly clashes between fans and with police.

BERHE: So now here in Ethiopia, the supporters are now bigger than the game.

PERALTA: It's obviously political, Berhe says, but it's also about sport. On the streets, Ethiopians are demanding a better life. They want better education, jobs. They want their voice to be heard. On the pitch, they want coaching. They want commitment.

BERHE: The supporters doesn't get what they want to see. They want to see better football in the field, but they don't see.

PERALTA: Back at the stadium, Adama has taken a 2-0 lead, and they're once again making another approach. An Adama player weaves through the Welwalo defense. And he gets a clear shot just outside the box.


PERALTA: He misses.

TADYOS: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: Tadyos (ph), a young guy who has come over to talk to me, says it's not the training. It's the field. It's uneven with holes everywhere. If the government took care of it instead of using the money to enrich itself, he says, fans would see better football. That play had set Tadyos off.

TADYOS: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: The corruption in Ethiopia, he says, has not only ruined the country's football but also torn the country apart by sowing division along ethnic lines. It'd be nice for the game to be here again, he says. But he's certain that won't happen until Ethiopians feel heard. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Adama, Ethiopia.

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