“I want Ethiopia to make it to the 2026 World Cup in the United States. Yes, it’s a long shot, but we do have a chance.”
Yohanes Zewdu knows better than most the value of reaching for the stars.
Born and raised in Addis Ababa in the 1980s, Zewdu’s story is an unbelievable one.
Arriving in Las Vegas aged 10 with his mother, he has sprung himself from the lowest rung of the Vegas strip into a lifestyle fixer for sporting superstars, a social media influencer, and now a role as the international liaison and strategic advisor for the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF).
“I’ve been in this role four months now. My job is to be a bridge between the EFF and other leagues, federations and brands,” Zewdu, who is professionally known as ‘Johnny Vegas’, tells BBC Sport.
“To shine a light on Ethiopian football, the image of the potential we have in our country and the resources we have, and say to the outside world ‘If you come here and invest in us, you’ll get something amazing’.
“We have a pool of talent of young people who love this sport, and they need just a little push, a little opportunity.”
From valet to footballer’s fixer
Zewdu’s own opportunity came from the most unlikely of sources, while working as a car-parking valet at the famed Bellagio hotel and casino.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I saw people like Leonardo di Caprio, Floyd Mayweather, Michael Jordan,” the 36-year-old said.
“One time I met a French movie star who was picking up his car. I told him my favourite player was Franck Ribery, who he said was like his brother.
“The next year, this guy came with a signed Ribery shirt and shorts. After that he said he had someone for me [to look after]. His friend stayed at the hotel, and I paid as a gesture of appreciation.
“This friend told the actor, and he said ‘Give me two months, I’ve got a surprise from you’.
“Two months later, I was sitting at home with my mum watching Oprah, and I got a call. And he said ‘Hey, I’m Nasri, nice to meet you’. And he asked if I could do some fixing for him and his friends coming to Vegas.
“I didn’t realise it was Samir Nasri until he asked me if I knew who he was. I became like Casper the ghost – white, shaking, sweating.
“It became a domino effect after that. Theo Walcott, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, the whole Arsenal squad came. Sixteen years later here we are – we’ve looked after a lot of people.”
Zewdu’s extensive contact list, the success of his company Kloudout, and his social media popularity have all led him to various other opportunities, including an appearance on the Seifu Fantahun show – “like Ethiopia’s Jimmy Kimmel” as he described it.
But he never forgot his roots, and on returning to Ethiopia and seeing the same issues existing decades after he had left, he put into place a plan that landed him at the gate of the EFF.
“I’ve had the success of catering to these role models and idols of a lot of kids in Ethiopia,” he explains.
“I remember wanting to be at their level when I was young. I got there, but when I went back to my country I saw the same hardships still there.
“I wanted to bring people opportunities through football, so I spoke to the federation about making the most of my network for everyone to have the opportunity to grow. And they agreed with my vision, and gave me the role of international liaison.”
Improving Ethiopia’s fortunes
On the field, Ethiopia’s men’s team, nicknamed the Walias, have a mixed history.
The east Africans have never qualified for the Fifa World Cup, while the last time they advanced beyond the group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations was in 1968, when they came fourth in a tournament they hosted.
Meanwhile, the current team have not played a competitive game in their home country in over two years, because their national Bahir Dar Stadium – and 21 other arenas – have inadequate facilities.
Recent Nations Cup qualifying matches have instead been played in Malawi, Mozambique and Morocco, while Wednesday’s 2026 World Cup qualifier at ‘home’ against Sierra Leone will instead be played in El Jadida, Morocco.
And this is where Zewdu believes he can have the biggest impact.
“Obviously I’m not a coach, I’m not a technical director,” he says.
“My job is to create a relationship between countries, leagues and brands with the federation. At the moment we have a disadvantage as we can’t play home games in front of our fans, so being there supporting them is a big deal.
“And bringing more resources to the players, opening doors for where they can train, improving the preparation side of it. I’m there to provide that mental support.”
Whether his support boosts Ethiopia on the international stage is to be seen, but it will not be for the want of trying.
And with ‘Johnny Vegas’ rolling the dice, anything is possible.
Source link : https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/africa/67403439?at_medium=RSS&at_campaign=KARANGA
Publish date : 2023-11-15 06:58:31