The description of the event on the billboard was slightly different. It read, “Blood Money Festival.”
Unity can be so divisive sometimes.
Ethiopians living in the United States are used to navigating political differences that stem from power struggles in their native country. But for decades, amateur soccer leagues were immune. Now, the controversy surrounding the tournament, which began Sunday and ends this weekend, has injected political overtones into a beloved sport.
Until this year, most of the amateur Ethiopian soccer clubs in the United States belonged to the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America, which has been holding an annual soccer tournament for 29 years and considers itself nonpolitical. One of the founding clubs — and one of the most dominant — is the D.C. Ethio Stars. For much of its existence, it was led by three men: Sebsebe Asefa, Eyaya Arega and Gebru Amanuel, who defected to the United States in 1979 when they were players for the Ethiopian national team. They were part of a wave of defections stemming from a bloody crackdown by the then-ruling Marxist dictatorship.
When that government fell, it was replaced by the current prime minister and de facto dictator, Meles Zenawi. Differences about politics have split Ethiopian churches and communities abroad, including in the Washington area. But the split now is over how people feel about the current regime. The region is home to about 200,000 people of Ethiopian descent, the largest population outside Ethiopia, according to the Ethiopian Embassy.
The soccer federation managed to escape such division until 2010, when it invited Birtukan Mideksa, a political opposition leader in Ethiopia, as a guest of honor for its next national soccer tournament.
A faction of board members, including Asefa and Arega, opposed an invitation to a figure as polarizing as Mideksa, a former judge who was imprisoned and is sometimes referred to as Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi. The faction asked that she be uninvited. After a board election that didn’t turn out in their favor, the dissenters left to form their own group. The new organization was called the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America One and got financial backing from Mohamed Amoudi, an Ethiopian-born billionaire and ally of the Zenawi government.
The two leagues went to court over their names. The older group prevailed, securing a court order that forced the upstart to opt for the All Ethiopian Sports Association. The two organizations immediately began planning rival soccer tournaments for the first week of July. The older federation is hosting a tournament in Dallas; the newer one plays its games in the District.