The Great Administrator
How Ydnekatchew Tessema led the fight to have African football taken seriously
"I'm issuing a call to our general assembly that it affirm that Africa is one and indivisible: that we work towards the unity of Africa together… that we condemn superstition, tribalism, all forms of discrimination within our football and in all domains of life." Ydnekatchew Tessema, speaking as the President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) at its 1974 Congress in Cairo, Egypt.
In the summer of 1936, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie made a dramatic speech to the League of Nations' general assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. He warned that his country had been subjected to a relentless and brutal occupation by Italy since its 1935 invasion, who were now "proceeding to the systematic extermination of a nation by barbarous means", sending aircraft to spray "a fine, death-dealing rain" over vast areas of countryside.
The speech created headlines worldwide as Selassie called for the principle of collective security — which the League precariously existed to protect — to be defended. He would be named Man of the Year by Time magazine in January 1937.
Selassie's speeches had little immediate practical effect, as the League of Nations failed to act against Italy in any substantive manner. In Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Selassie loyalists launched a failed attempt to assassinate Viceroy Graziani on 19 February 1937; in the aftermath, Italian brutality was taken to new extremes as perhaps 30,000 Ethiopians were slaughtered by knife, gunfire, petrol bombing and worse in a two-day pillage by the occupying forces.
In the St George area of Addis Ababa, under siege from the Italians, Ydnekatchew Tessema and his family found safety in the home of a Greek immigrant family near St George cathedral. They were spared from the massacre outside because Italian troops would not enter the homes of foreigners.
Two men had thrown the bombs at Graziani that sparked the retaliation. One of them, Abrha Deboch, was known to Tessema as a prominent fellow player among the pioneer footballers of Addis Ababa. Football had been an immediate casualty of the Italian occupation. The first notable Ethiopian game of football had occurred just before the invasion. In 1935, a visiting French naval team played against a select team of the best players in Addis Ababa. Tessema — who had taken up the sport with enthusiasm himself — was one of those selected for a squad that played in numerous practice games as preparation, employing as referee a man Tessema later described as "a huge and fat Negro American who found it difficult to conduct on foot and therefore had to be on horse-back for the purpose."
That select team was formed from all of Addis Ababa's communities, indigenous and immigrant, but an all-Ethiopian team — the St George Team — was created in December 1935, playing against Greek and Armenian teams in the city. Football seemed set to grow in Ethiopia after a decade of gestation. But within six months, the Italian invasion had succeeded and Ethiopia was merged with Italian Somaliland and Italian Eritrea to form Italian East Africa. Ethiopian football, along with the rest of its culture and society, was subjected to a massive assault.
The Italian occupiers played football, but initially only among themselves: all the existing Ethiopian teams were disbanded. As Tessema later put it in a book celebrating the history of football in Ethiopia, "eager Ethiopian fans had to satisfy their desires and love for the game by watching the Italians play from hideouts around fields."
The Italian occupation was based on racial segregation in cultural realms such as football. In 1937, in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Graziani, a separate "Sports Office for the Indigenous" was set up by the Italian Directorate for Political Affairs. The political nature of it soon became obvious, Tessema recalled, even as Ethiopians were at least allowed to play football again: "So it was made that we conduct our games in our place, everything separate, separate fields for football, separate spectators, even separate seats for bicyclists."
Tessema's St George team was Italianised and renamed Littorio Wube Sefer. Tessema, 16 at the time, was assigned to work in the Directorate's Sports Office, translating football rules and regulations. Despite his age, Tessema remembered that "I did not find it difficult to understand that the Italian policy was morally bankrupt." The Office's aim was clearly not to further sporting ethics, but to separate and divide communities.
On the football pitch, this meant that when two junior Ethiopian teams met for the first time on a previously "whites-only" field, the Italian officials and spectators goaded the players into fighting each other. "Encouraged by a wild mob, we became gladiators in a Roman arena and I tell you it turned out to be one spectacular fight," Tessema recalled. "So we had a mighty battle in the field, the Italians had a roaring time and we went home without having played the game, licking our wounds."
In his teenage years as a sport administrator and footballer playing under Italian rule, Tessema developed a commitment to equality on and off the pitch, a belief in fairness and a steadfast determination to face down the sort of devastating manipulation of the game he loved that he experienced until the Italian occupation ended in 1941.
Following the end of the occupation, Tessema rapidly became an extraordinarily prominent figure as a player, coach, referee and administrator in Ethiopian sports, especially football. He had a gift for organisation, an ability to manoeuvre politically, and no little talent in playing and managing that earned him the respect and admiration of his peers, even at a young age.
Tessema played a critical role in helping to found Ethiopia's first national sports office in 1943, leading to the formation of what became the Ethiopian Football Federation that year. Tessema was its first Secretary General, translating its statutes into the Amharic language himself. His team, St George, was one of four teams to compete for the first Ethiopian Football Championship, held in 1943 with ex-pat Greek, Italian and British teams. On 5 December 1947, Tessema captained the first Ethiopian team to play an international (the 1935 game against the French naval mission notwithstanding), as neighbouring Dijbouti were dispatched 5-0 in the presence of the Ethiopian emperor.
Tessema played in a total of 15 games for his country between 1948 and 1954, but his more significant impact would come as a coach and as an administrator. The year before Tessema retired as a player, Ethiopia officially joined the international stage, as its Federation joined Fifa, the fourth African nation to do so (after Egypt, Sudan and South Africa).
In 1957, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was formed to represent Africa as a continental block within Fifa, with Tessema representing Ethiopia at the founding meeting. Egypt, the richest federation, led the way, with CAF's headquarters in Cairo and the Egyptian General Abdelaziz Salem chosen as its first president. Along with Egypt and Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan joined the fledgling organisation. Tessema was a significant figure behind the scenes: he helped draft CAF's statutes and was elected to its executive committee.
The same year, the Africa Cup of Nations was inaugurated. Ethiopia was one of three nations to take part, losing in the final to Egypt. Five years later, Tessema coached Ethiopia himself and took them one step further, winning the competition on home soil — still the country's only major title. By then, Tessema was well-known for his opposition to the apartheid policies of South Africa. Without Tessema's insistence, all four founding nations may have been at the inaugural Africa Cup of Nations in 1957: the Ethiopian had successfully pushed for South Africa's exclusion as its federation, the Football Association of South Africa (FASA) insisted on sending either an all-white or an all-black team to the competition — but under no circumstances, a mixed team. In 1958, CAF expelled South Africa. It was Tessema, his fellow CAF delegate Abdel Halim Mohammed commented, whose "firm stand" ensured CAF was the first international organisation to isolate South Africa for its apartheid politics in sports.
CAF, led by Tessema, demanded that Fifa similarly recognise that the participation in international competition of a federation governing a racially segregated sport in its own borders was not only morally wrong, but against Fifa's own statutes. CAF demanded South Africa be suspended from the world's governing body until it integrated its national team. Fifa did so in 1961, but under the new leadership of Sir Stanley Rous — elected as Fifa president the same year — South Africa's suspension was lifted in 1963 after a visit to the country by Rous, against the fierce opposition of CAF and Tessema.
Rous was reported by the Johannesburg Star as saying that "All we are interested in is to see the controlling body of soccer in this country furthering the cause of football to the best of its ability." Fifa saw the issue of South Africa's racist politics, including the impact it had on sport, as none of its business. Its federation, according to Rous, was only following orders. Indeed, Rous asserted that taking action against the racial segregation of football in South Africa was itself bringing politics into sport. "Beneath a veneer of apolitical universalism," David Goldblatt wrote in The Ball is Round, "lurked an unreflective racism so deep that collaboration with apartheid was deemed a firmer moral and practice basis for the development of football than resistance to it."
Rous, though, could not control a Fifa Congress that was now increasingly populated by newly independent African and Asian nations. The Congress operated on a one member, one vote policy and by 1965, CAF had 26 members, up from four five years earlier. Led by Tessema, they were determined their voice should be heard. African nations, according to John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson in FIFA and the Contest for World Football, viewed the platform of world football as a key way to establish international recognition of their independence: "In the absence of economic and military might, newly independent African nations discovered in football a medium through which to register their presence in the international arena both on and off the playing field."
The African demand to be heard was impossible for Fifa to avoid in the run-up to the 1966 World Cup, to be hosted by Rous's homeland, England. The 1964 Fifa Congress was held in Tokyo in conjunction with the Olympic Games, making it far easier for delegates from poor African sporting bodies to attend. With broad support from Africa, Asia, South America and the Soviet bloc, and led by Tessema — now a Vice-President of CAF — the Fifa Congress voted to suspend South Africa once again, to Rous's considerable chagrin. CAF threatened to walk out of the next Congress if Rous attempted to lift the suspension once more.
Sporting injustice was also on the agenda in Tokyo. As the 1966 World Cup approached, CAF now had nearly 30 member nations — but only half a spot at the World Cup to chase, shared with all of Asia, the winner of each region's continental competition competing for the lone qualifying berth. Rous and Fifa were not disposed to shift the distribution of qualification spots, fearing greater participation from Africa would weaken the standard of the competition. Brian Glanville summed up the view of the European establishment, commenting that, "It is quite true that football in countries such as the USA and Ethiopia would be encouraged by World Cup participation, but only at the expense of cheapening the World Cup, a pretty heavy price to pay when this tournament is, or should be, the very zenith of the international game."
As well as participation in the World Cup, Rous was blunt about his belief developing nations did not deserve an equal standing in the Fifa Congress: "Many people are convinced that it is unrealistic, for example, that a country like England, where the game started and was first organised, or that experienced countries like Italy and France, who have been pillars of Fifa and influential in its problems and in world football affairs for so many years, should have no more than equal voting rights with any of the newly created countries of Africa and Asia."
Tessema was curt in his response to this patronising attitude. "Although we acknowledge the role played by certain continents in the creation of Fifa, its development and their moral, material and financial contributions, we estimate that democratic rule dictates that all rights and duties that form an international organisation should be the same for all. This is why in the framework of legitimacy, and by following a process consistent with the interests of world football and its unity, a progressive equilibrium of the representation in the heart of Fifa and its competition is required."
As well as successfully defending the one nation, one vote policy at the Congress, Tessema led the charge to expand the World Cup beyond the Eurocentric horizons of Rous, engaging in lengthy correspondence with him to push Africa's case for a direct qualification spot to encourage the development of the game.
With Fifa intransigent, Africa boycotted the 1966 World Cup. Fifa reacted by fining the threadbare African associations thousands of francs each, but by the 1966 Fifa Congress, CAF had clearly won the war and was awarded a full place at the 1970 World Cup. Even that concession only came after CAF had threatened to withdraw from the Congress, when a leaked memo showed Rous was supporting a proposed breakaway from CAF by a southern African federation including South Africa and Rhodesia.
Tessema's role in propelling African football's interests on the world stage soon saw him take on further responsibility, joining Fifa's Executive Committee in 1966, elected as secretary general of the Ethiopian Olympic Committee in 1967 and as president of CAF in 1972. As well as speaking Amharic, Tessema was fluent in English, French and Italian, a huge advantage in the hallways of international sports administration, navigating the complicated politics of Africa's Anglophone and Francophone blocks with consummate skill.
In the 1970s, Tessema was at the peak of his power. The struggles of the 1960s over apartheid in South Africa and African representation at the World Cup had shown the drain of fighting what CAF officials saw as a reactionary, Eurocentric Fifa leadership on issue after issue. What was needed, Tessema knew, was a shift in the axis of power inside the Fifa Executive. Rous was continuing to enrage CAF with his ongoing support for South Africa and Rhodesia in the late 1960s — CAF had expelled the latter in 1965 for its politics of racial discrimination in sport, but it wasn't until 1970 that Rhodesia was suspended from Fifa.
It was clear to Tessema that for CAF to continue to further its aims — increasing its number of places at the World Cup, growing its share of Fifa's revenue in development funding and opposing racial discrimination in sport — Rous would need to be replaced as president of Fifa.
As the 1974 Fifa Congress approached, Rous was challenged by João Havelange, the president of the Brazilian federation, who aimed to ride on the wave of discontent directed at the Englishman and promised to realign world football to the southern hemisphere: he visited 86 countries in his campaign, concentrating on African and Asian votes with promises to exclude apartheid South Africa from Fifa forever and to increase the number of World Cup places, allowing more berths for every confederation. Rous's campaign was distinctly — perhaps even proudly — amateur by contrast. He offered nothing new of benefit to CAF members.
Havelange was, therefore, the obvious choice for Tessema to throw his influence behind. Tessema used this leverage to force Havelange to withdraw Brazil from a 1973 sports festival in South Africa aimed at giving the apartheid regime international credibility. As Rous himself wrote, "The Brazilians withdrew, I am told on good authority, because Tessema, the president of the African confederation, threatened that Mr Havelange would lose the support of the African associations in his fight against me for the presidency of Fifa."
In his book Africa, Football and Fifa, Paul Darby argues that by supporting Havelange, Tessema and CAF seized an opportunity to reshape the poles of power in world football: "The fact that Tessema was in a position to threaten the withdrawal of African support for Havelange's presidential challenge illustrates that CAF was not only gaining confidence to assert itself within world football politics but was also beginning to recognise the potential that its voting powers offered the African continent. Indeed, it is clear from African accounts of the 1974 Fifa Congress … that the African nations did not see themselves merely as pawns in a power struggle for the control of Fifa. Instead, they saw Havelange as the means through which to achieve a realignment of the distribution of power and privilege within world football which would more adequately reflect their growing stature."
With Havelange in office, having defeated Rous in the 1974 Fifa presidential election by 68 votes to 52, Africa did reap obvious benefits and many of the goals of the 1960s were reached in the late 1970s without the need for the boycotts and fierce infighting within the halls of Fifa that had defined CAF's relationship with the governing body previously. Symbolically, the shift was seen with Havelange's inaugural Fifa executive committee meeting held in Africa for the first time, in Dakar, Senegal.
The two big issues of the 1960s were soon resolved positively from CAF's perspective. At the 1974 Fifa Congress in Frankfurt, Tessema put forward a motion that was passed requiring the automatic expulsion from Fifa of any country that practiced "ethnic, racial and/or religious discrimination in its territory," thus ending — to the chagrin of Rous — the ambiguity that surrounded South Africa's suspended membership. Ahead of the Congress in Montreal that year, Tessema wrote that he hoped the Fifa delegates would "have the courage to uphold the Fifa regulations which were not aimed at either white or black people in South Africa, but only against racial discrimination." South Africa were expelled from Fifa by a vote of 78 for to nine against.
Progress was also made in terms of CAF's goals on the field. In 1978, without the need for a vicious fight or a boycott, Africa's World Cup berths were doubled to two as the World Cup expanded to 24 nations for the 1982 competition in Spain. By the 1980s, the flipside of Havelange's regime had also begun to become apparent: Fifa's embrace of commercialism had begun to shift its priorities towards maximizing income at the expense of sporting integrity, while a belly-full of corruption bubbled barely below the surface. What Tessema, who by all accounts was himself unimpeachable, made of this is unclear. Did he ever regret his support for Havelange, despite the progress his regime had brought in fighting apartheid and increasing Africa's number of World Cup berths? Or for the successor he supported at CAF, Issa Hayatou, still in charge of the confederation today?
Tessema certainly had serious concerns about the direction of African football. He had long been sceptical about what professionalism might mean for the integrity of sporting competition; as a supporter of amateur football in the Olympics (he was made a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1971), he held closer beliefs in this area to the traditionalist Sir Stanley Rous than to the rapacious commercialism that was coming to define Havelange's Fifa.
Not long before his death from cancer at the age of 65 in 1987, Tessema issued a warning as he saw the flood of young African players leaving the continent for Europe, many in futile quests to make their fortune, and the impact that had on the development of the sport in Africa itself. "African football must make a choice!" he said. "Either we keep our players in Africa with the will power of reaching one day the top of the international competitions and restore to African people a dignity that they long for; or we let our best elements leave their countries, thus remaining the eternal suppliers of raw material to the premium countries, and renounce, in this way, to any ambition. When the rich countries take away from us, also by naturalisation, our best elements, we should not expect any chivalrous behaviour on their part to help African football."
Tessema, a man whose career had been defined by his fight for fairness on and off the field, was all too aware that his approach was the exception and not the rule in world football.