* 'Walyas' on the verge of the World Cup
* Face Nigeria for first leg playoff on Sunday
* Pundits praise passing game, resurgence
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger challenged British reporters in January to name five members of Ethiopia's squad ahead of their rare appearance at the African Cup of Nations in South Africa.
"It is maybe the only international competition today where you do not know all the players," he said in London. "This time in South Africa you will have Ethiopia - if I ask you to name five Ethiopian players, I am sure you will have a problem."
Such was Ethiopia's standing in world football - African giants turned perpetual strugglers who have slumped into the footballing wilderness since winning the African Nations Cup in 1962.
But the country more renowned for churning out some of the world's greatest long-distance runners is now making its mark on African football as a force to be reckoned with.
Nine months after their first appearance at a Nations Cup since 1982, the Walyas - named after an antelope endemic to the country - are just two matches away from clinching what would be East Africa's first-ever spot at a World Cup finals.
They face reigning African champions Nigeria in Addis Ababa on Sunday in the first leg of the playoff round. The return leg is scheduled for mid-November.
Coach Sewnet Bishaw says his players, buoyed by their exploits at January's tournament, are undaunted by the prospect of facing their more illustrious opponents.
"We are in good shape. We will fight against Nigeria," he told Reuters after a training session in the capital.
"The only thing we will do is give one hundred percent effort. If you give that, why wouldn't you have a one hundred percent chance of qualifying? You are equal."
Leading striker Saladin Seid, who scored four goals in the group stage of qualifying, said Ethiopia were confident of beating the Green Eagles on home soil.
"We will win in Addis. The away leg won't be easy but that will send us a long in securing our passage," he told Reuters.
Seeded among the weakest teams and featuring a home-based starting lineup, the unfancied Walyas were drawn against then-holders Zambia, Burkina Faso and Nigeria in the 2013 Nations' Cup.
They had goalkeeper Jemal Tassew sent off for a wild kung- fu style lunge in the first half of their opening match against Zambia, but still managed to earn a 1-1 draw.
Losses to Burkina Faso and Nigeria followed, but Ethiopia's "tika-taka" brand of passing game and movement drew praise from both the crowds and pundits alike.
"Parading a team of all home-based players Ethiopia reminded me in so many ways of Barcelona of Spain. Yes they were that good," said Sunday Oliseh, a former Nigeria captain who is now a football analyst.
With just Egypt-based striker Saladin on the books of a foreign club ahead of the tournament, the turnaround in fortune has also led to more players going on to ply their trade overseas.
From South Africa to Libya to Israel, the likes of striker Getaneh Kebede and midfielder Shemeles Bekele have been snapped up by clubs in countries with more lucrative leagues.
"We earned recognition in South Africa but a World Cup appearance would put the spotlight on our players," said Saladin, who has returned to Egyptian top flight side Wadi Degla after a stint in Belgium with Lierse.
Although they were docked three points for fielding a suspended player, Ethiopia finished the group stages undefeated and Ethiopian soccer analysts say the team's recent resurgence could herald a new era of sustained success.
"This is a golden generation whose players have belief in themselves," said Hussein Abdulkeni. "There is a rhythm now that has boosted confidence, that international tournaments are within Ethiopia's reach."
In the meantime, Ethiopian football fans are ecstatic about their team's achievements.
Throughout the capital's streets, giant portraits of the team are hang on high-rise buildings while state-owned channels air adverts in between regular programming, promoting the eagerly-awaited ties as "180 minutes before history is made".
Whether they make it to Brazil or not, Sewnet is satisfied with the state of the game in Ethiopia. Recent success has meant more sponsors in the domestic league and higher salaries for the players.
"Ethiopian football will continue to grow," he said. (Editing by Ed Osmond)