Or better we’d say, this is Ethiopia, a country that appears to have nothing in common with football, but surprisingly it has its own fascinating stories. Since 1957, when the African Nations Cup was founded (so, this competition is older than EURO, which was established in 1960!), only 13 national teams won it and from those the most unexpected champions were Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia. Of the first two we will speak some other time, because now I’m focusing on the Ethiopians and on their great Mengistu Worku.
In that period, Ethiopia was an important team from Africa which participated constantly at the Nations’ Cup and so in 1962, the third edition, exactly a half a century behind our days, won the crown. Many would rumor that the success was ensure by their host status and most important because they played directly into the semifinals. But for those who don’t now, the same format was adopted by the European Cup in its first editions. Plus, Ethiopia did played a qualification round, before knowing that they will host the championship and in that double round they eliminated their neighbors, Kenya. The ‘problem’ was solved from the home encounter, because Ethiopia obtained a clear 6-1 victory on 6th of April 1961. Three weeks later, the opponents got back their honor with a 5-4 margin win and did continue to play in the preliminaries as Ethiopia was accepted directly because of the host status.
So, the semifinals were already coming and in this stage, Tunisia was the obstacle. And Tunisia sidelined Nigeria, which meant a strong performance. Despite this, the hosts made a superb match on 14th of January 1962 and made it to the final, all thanks mostly to one man, Mengistu Worku, the greatest Ethiopian footballer of all time. Even though he netted only one goal, the 4-2 victory brought extra force for the final, against another Maghrebian country, but which was also two times holding champion: Egypt, or as it was called then, the United Arab Republic.
With six minutes left in that game, the score was in Egypt’s advantage, 2-1, but Worku pushed the battle into stoppage time. Here, Italo Vassalo, put Ethiopia in front and with only three minutes remaining, Worku completed the masterpiece on Addis Abeba Stadium and the final result was 4-2. The greatest success in this national teams’ history, brought by the most valuable player that this country produced during the years. What could be more beautiful? And now, as it is normal, I must present the story of Worku’s career.
He was born in 1940 and started playing for Saint-George SA since 1957 and until the end of his career, period in which he only wore the no. 8 shirt. The same shirt he also wore at the national football team during time, a national team for which he appeared in 98 cases and scored a record of 61 goals! From those, 10 at all editions of African Nations’ Cup at which he took part, from 1959 to 1970 (six editions). After he started training and also had great achievements as he qualified, in 1982 in Lybia, Ethiopia for the final tournament, year in which he became the last Ethiopian coach to participate at the Africa Nations’ Cup and also year which represented for Ethiopia the last ever, until now, participation at this major continental tournament. Unfortunately, his death came in 2010, but it could have been worse if he hadn’t receive the appropriate treatment for a tumor that was discovered in 2001. An Ethipian billionaire helped him to follow treatment in South Africa and Bangkok, but after nine years his body collapsed, even though the doctors told him initially that he has only a few months to live. His life was composed of 70 years from which a big part was dedicated to football, Ethiopian football.
It looks unreal that such a big player only appeared for the anonymous local Saint George SA, all his career, so we must take a look of what this squad represents for football. Established in 1936, by two Greeks, Ayele Atnash and George Dukas, in the period when fascist Italy invaded the territory of Ethiopia, it became the symbol of Ethiopian nationalism and the quest for freedom and because in that period no other clubs were in the country, they played many games against teams from outside the borders. So, they became the most beloved team from the country and in 1947 were part of the first national league alongside Mechale and Ke’ay Bahir.
Since then, they became the most successful squad from Ethiopia and one of the most prestigious from all Africa, with an impressive number of 36 trophies won (21 league titles, 8 Cups and 7 Super Cups!). Maybe Worku was sure that he was playing for a big club, possible the biggest in his career, despite receiving offers from France, Italy or even from El Zamalek of Egypt. And Mengistu had a good hunch because, even though the team didn’t won too many titles during his years there, the team became very strong in our days and to sustain this affirmation we can give the example of Giuseppe Dossena, former Italian international, which is now head coach of the team. Also, two year ago, in 2010, here played a goalkeeper from… Serbia! Zelijko Kuzmic is now the player of Zeleznicar Lajkovac, but did appear in 18 matches for Saint George! Before he played for Pobeda Prilep from Macedonia and also was under contract with Zelejnik Beograd in 2004, when Steaua Bucharest played against them in the UEFA Cup, but was loaned at that time to Lasta Sremcica, in lower leagues.