World Cup 2026: Ethiopia’s ‘Johnny Vegas’ dreams big in new role at federation

Image source, Yohanes Zewdu

Image caption,

Yohanes Zewdu joins Italian World Cup winner Francesco Totti (left) and England midfielder Jack Wilshere (right) over the course of his career.

“I want Ethiopia to go to the 2026 World Cup in the United States. Yes, it’s a long shot, but we 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 incredible one.

Arriving in Las Vegas at the age of 10 with his mother, he went from the lowest level of the Vegas strip to a lifestyle fixer for sporting superstars, a social media influencer, and now a role as international liaison and strategic advisor for Ethiopian Football. Federation (EFF).

“I have been in this role for four months. My job is to be the bridge between the EFF and other leagues, federations and brands,” Zewdu, who is known professionally as ‘Johnny Vegas’, told BBC Sport.

“To shine a light on Ethiopian football, the image of the potential that our country has and the resources that we have, and tell the outside world ‘If you come here and invest in us, you will get a you are a wonderful thing’.

“We have a lot of young talent who love this game, and they need a little push, a little opportunity.”

Zewdu’s own opportunity came from the most unlikely of origins, while working as a valet parking car at the famous Bellagio hotel and casino.

“This is the best thing that happened to me. I saw people like Leonardo di Caprio, Floyd Mayweather, Michael Jordan,” said the 36-year-old.

“One time I met a French movie star who was taking his car. I told him that my favorite 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 thank you.

“This friend told the actor, and he said ‘Give me two months, I have a surprise from you’.

“Two months later, I was sitting at home with my mom watching Oprah, and I got a call. And she said ‘Hey, I’m Nasri, nice to meet you’. And she asked if I will fix it for him and his friends who went to Vegas.

“I didn’t realize it was Samir Nasri until he asked me if I knew him. 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 look after a lot of people.”

Image source, Yohanes Zewdu

Image caption,

Zewdu has worked with many sports figures, including Formula 1 driver Lando Norris

Zewdu’s extensive contact list, the success of his company Kloudout, and his popularity on social media have all led him to various opportunities, including an appearance on the Seifu Fantahun show – “like Ethiopia Jimmy Kimmel” as he describes it.

But he never forgot his roots, and when he returned to Ethiopia and saw the same issues that existed decades after his departure, he put a plan in place that put him at the gate of the EFF.

“I have had success in giving these models and idols to many children in Ethiopia,” he explained.

“I remember wanting to be at their level when I was young. I got there, but when I returned to my country I saw the same difficulties still there.

“I want to bring people opportunities through football, so I talked 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 in the role of international liaison.”

Improving Ethiopia’s fortunes

Image caption,

Zewdu meets EFF president Esayas Jira (left) and Guido Fienga (right), the chief executive of Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, as he builds partnerships for the national federation

On the field, Ethiopia’s men’s team, nicknamed the Walias, has had 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 has not played a competitive game in their home country for more than two years, as their national Bahir Dar Stadium – and 21 other arenas – have insufficient capacity. facility.

Recent Nations Cup qualifiers have been played in Malawi, Mozambique and Morocco, while the 2026 World Cup qualifier at ‘home’ against Sierra Leone on Wednesday will be in El Jadida, Morocco.

And this is where Zewdu believes he will have the greatest impact.

“Obviously I’m not a coach, I’m not a technical director,” he said.

“My job is to create a relationship between the countries, the leagues and the brands of the federation. At the moment we have a disadvantage because we cannot play the games at home in front of our fans, so the being there to support them is a big deal.

“And bringing more resources to the players, opening doors 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 remains to be seen, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

And with ‘Johnny Vegas’ rolling the dice, anything is possible.

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