A black pickup truck slowly circled RFK Stadium. Its sole cargo was a billboard bearing the images of a starving child, a man with a swastika on his forehead, piles of money and a soccer ball.
Just inside the stadium, the All Ethiopian Sports Association One’s first soccer tournament, a six-day extravaganza promoting oneness among Ethiopians in America, was getting underway.
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.
With both tournaments on the calendar, vendors, performers and players had to choose which one to attend. Several soccer clubs split into two. There are now two D.C. Ethio Stars teams, one lead by Asefa, and the other by his fellow defector Amanuel.
“It was a decision everybody had to make. The ones that went to Dallas, we said good luck,” said Teddy Fekade, 43, a coach for the D.C. Ethio Stars. “Those are our brothers. It was as tough for them as it was for us. There is no animosity.”
The same can’t be said for the other side, which accuses the defectors of aligning themselves with Amoudi and, by extension, Zenawi’s government.
“Real Ethiopians do not participate” in the new league, Amanuel said. “Some of the players just take [Amoudi’s] money. We are financed by business owners.”
Protesters who gathered outside RFK on Sunday were even harsher in their criticism of the tournament organizers. They argued that Amoudi’s wealth comes at the expense of Ethiopians and called him a thief and mass murderer. They were behind the billboard in the pickup truck that advertised the tournament as a “Blood Money Festival.”
Protesters have planned another rally for Friday afternoon.
In comments on Web sites for anti-Zenawi publications such as the Ethiopian Review, the protest organizers were calling on Ethiopians here to boycott anyone involved in the RFK tournament, including performers and vendors.
“We are going after the businesses and the singers,” said Kebadu Belachew, one of the protesters. “We will publish their names.”
Terrence Lyons, an expert on Ethiopian politics at George Mason University, said it is “not too far of a stretch” to believe Amoudi’s bankrolling of a soccer federation is part of a larger effort to influence the diaspora. But Amoudi is also not quite as sinister as the protesters make him out to be. Lyons said many of Amoudi’s investments in Ethiopia could be seen as legitimate development.
Asefa, of the All Ethiopian Sports Association, said the new league is not about taking sides. Instead, he said, it seeks to return to the concept that launched the first one: using sport to bridge differences.
“We don’t want to get involved in politics, religion or [anything] ethnic,” he said. “We want all Ethiopians to participate.”
To make that point, the guests of honor at the RFK tournament are members of the 1962 Ethiopian national soccer team, the country’s only team to win the Africa Cup of Nations. When four of them took their seats Sunday before the opening ceremonies, people applauded and crowded around them to take pictures. But attendance was sparse, with fewer than 100 people on hand that day.
One was a 48-year-old federal worker from Burke named Tesfa. He offered only his first name because, as he put it, “I don’t want to lose friends.”
In Tesfa’s case, the hard line taken by Zenawi’s opponents may have backfired. After getting e-mails urging him to boycott the event, he said, he wanted to go.
“I’m just tired of the negativity. For once, stop this nonsense,” he said. “Now we’re supposed to be cheerleaders for one side or the other? Don’t make me a target of vile, divisive e-mails. I’m glad I came.”