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After falling off football map in famine and civil war, Ethiopia on cusp of World Cup history

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JOHANNESBURG - In African football, it's usually the unexpected marvels that capture the world's attention.

In 1990, it was Cameroon's stunning win over Argentina and its subsequent path to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, highlighted by Roger Milla's iconic hip-wiggling dance at the corner flag. In 2002, it was Senegal defeating world champion France at the showcase tournament, prompting fans to slaughter cockerels, the French mascot, on the streets of Dakar.

Now, Ethiopia is just two games away from achieving another feat that once seemed inconceivable — simply reaching the 2014 World Cup.

What a story that would be.

Champion of Africa in 1962, Ethiopia fell off the football map for three decades. Civil war ravaged the country, and terrible famine killed nearly half a million people in the early 1980s.

Sport still played a part in the country, as world-beating runners hardened by poverty and high altitude continued to come out of Ethiopia. After barefoot Abebe Bikila won back-to-back marathon golds at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo games, successive generations of Ethiopian Olympic champions inspired the next. But there were no longer any Ethiopian footballers of any great renown.

There still aren't — although that could be about to change.

To become one of five African teams that will travel to the World Cup in Brazil next June, Ethiopia must beat current African champion Nigeria in the qualifying playoffs. The first match is this coming Sunday in Addis Ababa Stadium. The return fixture is Nov. 16.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, has played in four of the last five World Cups. It can call upon stars including Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, Liverpool's Victor Moses and players from the Italian and Spanish leagues.

Ethiopia has never played in football's showcase competition. Its appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations this January was its first at a major tournament in 31 years. And few outside of Ethiopia will have heard of Saladin Said, its top player.

The striker has made the biggest mark — if it can be called that — of any player on Ethiopia's national team by playing for Belgian club Lierse. A couple of other squad members play in Libya and Kazakhstan. Ethiopia is the only team that coach Sewnet Bishaw, a schoolteacher, has ever managed.

But sport loves underdogs and the World Cup loves African success stories.

Milla became a global star in 1990 at the age of 38 as his Indomitable Lions shook world football, and Senegal went on to reach the quarterfinals in 2002 after beating old colonial power France in its first World Cup. In South Africa three years ago, Ghana provided one of the most gripping story lines as the entire continent rallied behind the Black Stars on their march to the knockout round in the first World Cup held in Africa. Having reached the quarterfinals, only Luis Suarez's infamous deliberate handball on the goal line and Asamoah Gyan's subsequent missed penalty that rebounded off the crossbar prevented Ghana from becoming the first African nation to reach the semifinals.

The passion for football in Ethiopia easily matches those West African nations.

At the African Cup this January, Ethiopia fans unfurled a banner that read: "We're sorry for our behaviour but we love the game." That was after supporters hurled plastic bottles onto the field, furious at a straight red card shown to Ethiopia's goalkeeper for a flying chest-high kick on a Zambia striker.

To reach the last 10 African teams in the World Cup playoffs, Ethiopia came through a qualifying group containing 2010 host South Africa, Central African Republic and Botswana. It also overcame being docked three points for fielding ineligible midfielder Minyahile Beyene while he was suspended.

Sellout crowds in Addis Ababa drive the team on. What players lack in technique they make up for with endurance.

This is a country of runners, after all, although sometimes it only takes a single event for a sport to take a larger foothold.

In 1980, around the last time Ethiopia qualified for a major football tournament, future Olympic distance running champion Haile Gebrselassie was 7 years old. He stole his father's radio and ran into the fields around his home to listen to commentary from Moscow of Miruts Yifter winning the 10,000-meter gold at the Summer Games. That day, Gebrselassie decided that he, too, wanted to be an Olympic champion.

If they get past Nigeria, it could be Saladin and his teammates leaving a similar legacy next year in Brazil.

___

Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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