Gatoch Panom (left) in action for Ethiopia, Photo: TBM Sports

Earlier this summer, Anzhi Makhachkala made a surprise transfer when after a succesful trial period, they signed Ethiopian international midfielder Gatoch Panom from Ethiopian Coffee in the nation’s top flight. In moving to Russia, Panom became the 45th player to move directly from an African club to Russia since 1998, and it’s the 4th time Anzhi have made such a move. And while the transfer might not be huge news in Russia, it means a great deal to Ethiopia, a nation not famed for it’s footballing talent.

When you hear the word Ethiopia, the great runners of the East African nation might be the first thing that springs to your mind, long have they dominated the greatest races in the world, with names such as Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele becoming household at their peaks,  but if you look past running, you might be surprised to find the nation is in love with football. Ethiopians breathe football. From childhood, people play constantly on local village pitches, every Ethiopian is familiar with the touch of a ball made of clothes or plastic. But, the national team has always been unsuccessful on international and regional stage.

When you explore this football loving nation, you will find frustrated fans everywhere, disappointed as the national team racks up loss after loss, promising themselves “We won’t come back to the stadium again.” but when the next match rolls around, you will inevitably see full a stadium, with fans unable to turn their back on the sport which dominates their lives.

If Ethiopians are so passionate about football, why does the national team remain so unsuccessful, why have no players made the move to Europe? If your guess is a sheer lack of talent, you are wrong. Ethiopia have played in international tournaments since the late 1950’s and they won the African Cup of Nations in 1962, their crowning achievement. Since that generation, there is no doubt that Ethiopa have had great players in every department in every era.

So why has Ethiopia not had successful footballers in the big leagues of Europe like other Africa nations? David Beshah was an Ethiopian-German football player. He played for the Ethiopian National team in 2011-12, before joining Ethiopian Coffee from the German lower leagues, where he played for two years until he sustained an injury which forced him to hang his boots up early and retire. At this point, he then opened an agency which aimed to send talented Ethiopian players to Europe. Gatoch Panom’s transfer to Anzhi is his first big success.

Speaking exclusively to RFN, Beshah explained the reasons why Ethiopian players have struggled to break into the European big leagues.

In Ethiopia, we have a lack of educated coaches, virtually no youth academies or sports facilities and above all, there is just a sheer lack of opportunities, this makes it very difficult for our players to progress and compete on the European platform.

In the early 1960’s – Ethiopia’s so called golden age – clubs from Italy and France offered contracts to Ethiopian legends Mengistu Worku and Luciano Vassallo, but they refused the offers, staying loyal to their Ethiopian clubs. After this point, there were no professional moves to Europe until the early 2000’s and when they did, they were largely unsuccessful:

  • Bayu Mulu from St.George to K.R.C Gent in 1999.
  • Yordanos Abay from EEPCO to  Vitesse Arnhem in 2002.
  • Asrat Megersa from EEPCO to Israeli side Hapoel Ramat HaSharon in 2013.

Until Panom’s move to Anzhi, these were the only direct transfers from the Ethiopian league to Europe clubs in the nation’s history, so in joining Anzhi, Gatoch Panom will be the first player in Ethiopian history to play in one of the top 6 leagues in Europe.

And this means a lot to Ethiopian football as Beshah told RFN:

The impact of this transfer is that hopefully the international football community will notice Ethiopia from now on, especially if Gatoch is successful and becomes a regular player in the first team. His transfer is not only good for Ethiopa as a whole, but for fellow players, as it could open the door for many players to move abroad, something which Ethiopa on the whole is very poor at doing.

Panom is a holding midfielder with a huge frame, standing at 6’3 in height and with muscle to back it up. Aged just 22 still, he has played for the national team since he was 18 years old, and has been a mainstay since, making 29 caps so far, scoring 7 goals. This tally for a defensive midfielder may seem high, but at club and international level he is the regular penalty taker, attributing for most of his seven goals. At club level last season he scored eight goals, again mainly from the penalty spot.

Anzhi’s move for Panom is the 3rd Africa-Russia transfer in 2017 after Fashion Sakala and Audrey Zepatta both joined Spartak Moscow in January, a record high for this kind of move since 2006, and proving once more that their is an increasing presence of Russian clubs in Africa over recent years. Only time will tell, but unlike Sakala and Zepatta, Panom has the pedigree and experience to potentially go straight into Anzhi’s first team, and should he make a good impact, the face of Ethiopian football could change forever.

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