Representing Ethiopia in International Football Tournament

Bamlak Tessema is one of six referees in Africa selected by FIFA to officiate the games of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Bamlak will represent his country on the world stage, 48 years after another Ethiopian referee, the late Seyoum Tarekegn, took part in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. The 38 year old international referee has had an interesting journey to reach to this level. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw sat down with the Bamlak to learn about his career.

Being a football referee seems to be one of the scariest jobs in Ethiopia. In fact, there have been several instances of violence against football referees in the country in recent years.  The latest incident, which went viral globally, is one such case. When Defence Force SC welcomed their rivals from Welwalo Adigrat University Football Club three months ago to Addis Ababa Stadium, a referee was attacked by Welwalo Adigrat players and the head of the team for awarding a controversial goal at the last minute. This was followed by the temporary suspension of the Premier League by Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) officials. 

In a midst of the crisis, very good news came from the world football governing body, FIFA in May 2018, which brought small spark of hope. International referee Bamlak Tessema was selected by the FIFA Referee Committee to officiate in World Cup 2018 tournament in Russia.

To be selected as one of the six African referees to officiate in the most prestigious and widely watched international sport tournament may sound like winning the lottery. But the 38-year old has had a well-documented climb up the professional ladder, building a career on the national and continental levels. His latest performance, in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League final between Al Ahly and Wydad Casablanca last year, can be a testimony for his excellence. 

His love affair with football started in high school, where Bamlak played for his school team. A trial to join the then-Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation Football Club, now known as Ethio Electric, ended with no luck. But the young Bamlak was always willing to take the refereeing role whenever older students were playing. “I enjoyed it, and I also made some money after the game,” he recalled. 

In 2001, a man who saw Bamlak officiating games helped him land his first refereeing course. But it took him two years to be assigned by EFF. Six years later, he received the FIFA badge which qualified him to officiate at an international level, a day he remembers fondly for more than one reason. “It was a special day,” he told EBR. “The badge arrived on the same day as my wedding.” 

Although Bamlak, a father of two, studied nursing and sociology at Addis Ababa University, his love for the sport is absolute. “Refereeing is a task that demands your passion,” he explained. “You need to exercise like an elite athlete. You need to read. You need to watch games. You must improve your language skills and learn about technologies used in the game such as Video Assistant Referee technology. But you can only do these all when you really love your job.” 

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Even though his career is moving up the ladder on the international stage, there are mixed opinions about Bamlak locally. There was even a time when some of the top teams in the Ethiopian premier league actively tried to keep him from referring their games.       

“The more the referee does his job without fault, the fewer excuses the teams have for their failures. Everyone wants to externalize failure,” argues Girmachew Kebede, a university lecturer and the host of the Rigore sport, a radio programme on Fana FM 98.1. “Players, coaches and club officials blame referees for defeat, or blame the media for the violence they should take responsibility for. Excuses run dry when referees like Bamlak, who do their job very well, are the lead officials.”

The current trend of hostility towards referees in Ethiopia concerns Bamlak, who was once attacked by a coach after a game between Shashemene City and Metehara Sugar. “The violence that is becoming associated with the profession might turn new people off it,” he explained. 

On top of that, the financial rewards for being a referee are scant.  Referees in the Ethiopian Premiere League are paid 1000 ETB per game. When they travel to regional towns, they receive a per diem of 1000 ETB per day. 

But Bamlak takes the hardship in stride. “Football refereeing does not make people rich. It’s a pain that you enjoy. You make the mistake of being just a meter away from the right spot and you have a sleepless night. You come in to the profession with all these risks. We need to worry about the future because referees might consider quitting their job and the youngsters could be less attracted to it,” he told EBR.

But for the moment, only a few Ethiopian referees have been successful on the international stage, and can serve as role models for future referees. This includes Lidya Tafesse, who, having officiated in several African and international Women football tournaments, including the Women’s World Cup, will be in France for the U-20 FIFA Women World Cup in August 2018. 

Of course, the question of how a country with a low football profile like Ethiopia has produced such world class referees does arise, especially when countries like England, which has one of the world’s most watched Premier Leagues, isn’t sending a single referee to the World Cup, but not for Girmachew. “Rating our referees based on our football standards is not right,” said Girmachew. “I believe most of the referees here are very skilled, which is why there aren’t complaints when they referee abroad. If they are underperforming only in the domestic league, we should focus on the other local factors which make their job difficult.” 

Bamlak, who is also an assistant researcher at Armauer Hansen Research Institute, a biomedical research body, agrees. “The game and the laws of the game is the same everywhere. If the referee performs differently in different places, we need to sort out why,” he said. Balancing a full time job with refereeing is not easy. “Most football games are on the weekends. But I manage some of the mid-week games. Sometimes you need to take leave without payment., or take annual leave. I might use my weekends and nights to make up for the lost time. I can’t deny the fact my social life suffers through this.”

But putting aside all the chaos at home, Bamlak is proud to represent his country on the world stage, 48 years after another Ethiopian, the late Seyoum Tarekegn, took part in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. “My name will not appear on the TV screen without our flag,” explains Bamlak.

6th Year . June 2018 . No.62 



Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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