Long before she became a coach, Meserte Manni, a native of Dire Dawa, a city in the east of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, used to play volleyball in her neighbourhood.
She also did play football with her male counterparts at Ashewa Meda, a popular grass-less field in Dire Dawa. She has defied all odds to ink her name in the history of Ethiopian Football by guiding hometown club Dire Dawa City, to the Ethiopian Premier League for the first time since 2012.
Manni explains playing football in her childhood days was very tough, whilst her gender did not help either.
“Ashewa Meda is around my house and I used to spend much time on the field playing football with the males back then. Since women’s football was perceived a taboo in society, my parents did not want me to play football at all.
“It is a tough situation when people hinder you from doing what you love. My childhood was tough just for the sake of deciding to play football. My parents punished and grounded me from playing. Nevertheless, I sneaked out to play football without the consent of my parents,” Manni recalled to CAFonline.com.
From Volleyball, Footballer and Coaching
Pressure from her male peers and the community at large forced Manni to play Volleyball for a decade before shifting to her first love – football, the sport she truly adores. In 2000, the Ethiopian Women’s Premier League took off. Her leadership and organizational abilities opened doors for her and she was signed by Dire Dawa as a player-coach. Her playing career was however cut short by injury after two seasons, marking the beginning of her coaching career which began as a grassroots trainer in her locality, Ashewa Meda, famous for being the breeding grounds of some of the finest talents Ethiopian football has seen.
Of course, the journey was not so rosy and Manni threatened to quit the game for good during periods her project was at a standstill. Then an opportunity for a coaching course in South Africa pops up, which helped her to gain more knowledge in line with modern trends leading to her appointment as coach of Dire Dawa women’s team in 2011.
“Although my project was blossoming, lack of appropriate assistance almost forced me to quit football. If it was not for the coaching course in South Africa, I would not have gotten my motivation back. I strove to do great things from that point onward.”
Dire Dawa comes knocking
In 2014, the foremost men’s club in her hometown, Dire Dawa City, funded by the City Administration, invited her to take helm of the club, which was dangling in the second-tier league after a dreadful season in 2012, saw them relegated from the top flight.
It was a groundbreaking decision for a female to be appointed head coach of a men’s team in the history of Ethiopia. Many were the doubting Thomases, but she will soon force them to eat humble pie.
“My maiden season at Dire Dawa started smoothly. We were winning game after game. Suddenly, after three wins in a row, things started to change” Manni remarked.
In the highly competitive second-tier league, Dire Dawa reached the playoffs, a performance that silenced officials of the club and fans to rethink the decision to appoint a female coach.
“Frankly, I see no difference in coaching males and females. Yes, it is plainly evident that most males at first were skeptical about my coaching philosophy and ability. Subsequently, they saw my work and they became cooperative.
“When we started to lose some games, the players began to have some doubt, which was expected. My focus was on solving the problem rather than engaging in unnecessary things with the players”.
Her solution came in handy when Dire Dawa booked a place in the playoffs after only two losses throughout the season. Eventually, Dire Dawa will qualify back to the Ethiopia Premier League at the expense of Jimma Aba Coffee FC for the 2015/2016 season. By the feat, she belongs to a rare breed of female coaches involved with a top flight club in Africa.
Life in the Ethiopian Premier League
The elite division has been a different terrain for Manni and her much changed side, boosted by the signing of a couple of experienced players.
“There is huge gap between the Premier League and the National League (second-tier league). We are adapting on how to survive the league. We started the campaign somehow good. Lack of concentration and wastefulness are the drawbacks that we are facing. The players have demonstrated the fact that they can play quality football though.”
Week Four will serve one of Manni biggest test with her side coming up against defending champions, Saint George, unarguably the most successful side in Ethiopian football. The duel ended 1-0 in favour of the Addis Ababa outfit, midfielder Natnael Zeleke’s second half strike separating the two sides.
“I was not emotional before facing Saint George. It was a good game. I competed against a foreign coach (Mart Nooij) and a club which has the very best players across the country. It was a huge experience” she said.
Dire Dawa City resumed the second halve of the league on high note after signing ex- Ethiopian internationals Yordanos Abay and Fuad Ibrahim, with Manni tagging their presence a huge boost to their chances.
“The strikers we have acquired will help us to solve our attacking dilemma. We want to get better results in the second round. We had more or less a better result in the first round. Our aim is to beat the other 13 teams so as to achieve a much higher result,” said Manni.
After 18 matches, Dire Dawa sits fifth on the 14-club league log 27 points.
Unfulfilled childhood dream; empowering more women
“I dreamt of playing for the Ethiopia women’s national team (Lucy). It didn’t work out. My childhood wish could not be fulfilled due to so many reasons. Despite that, I want to be more successful both at club and national team level. My ultimate goal is to manage the male national team (Walias),” said Manni, who has already worked as an assistant coach for the women’s national team.
Her story is a profoundly astounding success in the history of Ethiopian football, and is expected to drive other women to follow suit.
“Empowering women is essential. Forget the affirmative action; women can do great things, if they are committed and competent. I oppose affirmative action because women must compete and defy challenges to reach their goals and live their dreams.”
The soft spoken Manni hopes to keep Dire Dawa City in the league this season and she appears to be in that direction. She has silenced her critics and won the hearts of many fans across the country. She has gained respect that no female coach has ever got, even from her male counterparts. The sky can only be the limit for Manni as she aims to lead a male team to glory in a society that perceives women mediocre to men.