Coach Abraham Mebratu has put Yemen on the brink of AFC history

A victory over Nepal on Tuesday would see Yemen qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in their history. (KUNA)
Updated 26 March 2018
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Coach Abraham Mebratu has put Yemen on the brink of AFC history

DUBAI: For the past four years, the football landscape of Yemen has been as barren as the Rub’ Al-Khali desert in the country’s northeast. More popularly known as the “Empty Quarter,” the large expanse of sand, that stretches up through the Arabian Gulf, is largely devoid of life. It is an unfortunate, but apt, metaphor for domestic football in the troubled nation.
Yemen remains in the middle of a violent civil war, a conflict that brought the indefinite postponement of the professional football league in 2014. A handful of Yemeni players have left the country in search of both refuge and regular football. Most, however, stayed. They remain without clubs and without hope of a resumption of domestic football anytime soon.
It is against this turbulent backdrop that Abraham Mebratu took charge of the Yemen national team in March 2016.
The Ethiopian coach was certainly under no illusions about what he signed up for, having already been in situ in Yemen. In 2013, he successfully guided the country’s Olympic side to the AFC U-22 Championship in Oman, and when the senior side came calling he was working as technical director at the Yemen FA.
Mebratu unquestionably has one of the world’s toughest coaching jobs but he has performed a football miracle with Yemen. Despite his team playing only a smattering of competitive matches, he has managed to forge a competitive team.
Now, Yemen stand on the brink of history. A victory over Nepal on Tuesday would see them qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time.
“It has been a difficult journey but Inshallah, we will play in the Asian Cup,” Mebratu told Arab News. “There is no football league in Yemen and of course this is the biggest challenge — my players can only play if there is an international friendly or an Asian Cup qualifier. Otherwise, there is no football.
“Obviously, this has been very tough. I have a local selection camp with 40 players. I make three or four teams, and then we just have lots of practice matches. From that we choose the team for Asian Cup qualifiers.
“It affects how to set your strategy for qualification, how to set up the tactics. It has been very difficult to choose the players, to bring them into matches in good shape, mentally and physically.”
But Mebratu has managed to do just that. A 2-1 victory over Tajikstan in the opening match of Asian Cup qualifying gave Yemen the perfect start and they have remained unbeaten since — three away draws exemplifying his side’s steely determination.
“All the matches were very important but beating Tajikstan gave us morale and courage to proceed with a strong spirit,” the Ethiopian coach recalled. “This was the key moment for us to show that we are capable of winning, and of qualifying.
“I am very proud because we have a very young team with not many experienced players. The situation in Yemen has made things challenging but I was lucky when I started that I knew a lot of players from my time coaching the U-23 team.
“I knew their skill, I knew their focus, I knew their tactical knowledge and I knew their physical ability. This helped me know which players would be suitable for the national team and now those U-23 players are the foundation of the senior side. They are improving all the time and are hungry to succeed.”
Despite their desire, the majority of those young Yemeni players are still held back by their inability to play regular domestic football. A few have managed to find football opportunities overseas — with attacking midfielder Aiman Al-Hagri, who Mebratu coached at U-23 level, recently playing in India with Shilong Lajong.
Goalkeepers Mohammed Ebrahim Ayash and Same Mohammed Saleh are both based in Oman with Al-Suqaiq and Al-Wahda respectively while, most fascinatingly, 19-year-old forward Ahmed Abdulhakim Al-Sarori is plying his trade in the fourth-tier of Brazilian football.
“Ahmed is doing well in Brazil, now he is playing,” Mebratu said. “He will go far I am sure. He is one of the youngest but is very promising — moving to Brazil will be a good opportunity for him and hopefully there will be more chances for the other young players.
“Yemen has a lot of talented young players but they need the coaching. They need to play.”
Just like Iraq and, more recently, Syria before them — Yemen have had to dig deep to get results as they have not been able to play in front of their own fans. The last international match to be played in Yemen’s capital Sanaa was a friendly against Palestine in June 2012, while the impressive 30,000-capacity May 22 Stadium in the southern city of Aden has been a ghostly white elephant for many years since construction.
Yemen’s home qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup have been played in Qatar, which will also host their crunch clash with Nepal on Tuesday. There will be few Yemenis in attendance — just 380 fans watched the win against Tajikstan — but Mebratu says his players are, nevertheless, primed for the biggest match of their careers. “We cannot play in Yemen because of the security situation and it is very difficult for the players, who would love to play in front of their own fans. Playing every game away from your supporters is tough but we remember that the Yemeni people will still be watching.
“If we beat Nepal and qualify for the Asian Cup it would be the greatest moment of my career of course — because this will be a new story for Yemen. We will not underestimate our opponents but my players are ready to make history for themselves, their families and their country.”


Finch, Starc shine as Australia beat Sri Lanka in World Cup

Updated 15 June 2019
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Finch, Starc shine as Australia beat Sri Lanka in World Cup

  • Defending champions record their fourth win of tournament at the Oval encounter

LONDON: Australia captain Aaron Finch and pace bowler Mitchell Starc stole the show as the holders eased to an 87-run win over Sri Lanka at the Oval on Saturday.

Finch equalled his career-best one-day international score with a masterful 153 and Steve Smith chipped in with 73 as Australia scored 334-7.

Needing a World Cup record run-chase to claim a shock win, Sri Lanka got off to a flying start thanks to a first-wicket partnership of 115 between captain Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Perera.

But Perera departed for 52 and when Karunaratne fell on 97 the game swung back in Australia’s direction.

Starc was the catalyst with a fiery spell of three wickets in six balls, Australia eventually dismissing Sri Lanka for 247 thanks in large part to his 4-55 from 10 overs.

Kane Williamson added three wickets of his own as Australia made it four wins from their five group matches after previously beating Afghanistan, the West Indies and Pakistan.

Their lone defeat in the 10-team tournament came against India and their latest victory puts them well on course for a semifinal berth.

Sri Lanka, who lost their last seven wickets for 42 runs, have only one win from their five matches, a disappointing run that includes two washouts.

They face a struggle to reach the semifinals with only four matches left, a spell that features encounters with title contenders England and India.

Sri Lanka had briefly looked capable of surpassing the World Cup chase set by Ireland, who made 329-7 to beat England in 2011.

Karunaratne and his opening partner Perera blasted 24 from the first two overs and reached their fifty partnership in just the seventh over.

But Starc bowled Perera and Jason Behrendorff dismissed Lahiru Thirimanne for 16 as Australia hit back.

A six from Kusal Mendis in the 31st over signalled Sri Lanka’s intent to get cracking.

But crucially Karunaratne stumbled short of his maiden World Cup century when he carelessly flicked Richardson to Glenn Maxwell at backward point.

That left Sri Lanka 186-3 and set the stage for Starc to turn the screw by dismissing Milinda Siriwardana, Thisara Perera and Mendis in quick succession.

Mendis’s mistimed drive off Starc reduced Sri Lanka to 222-7 and shattered their resistance.

Earlier, Finch took the Sri Lanka attack apart with a dazzling display that included 15 fours and five sixes.

He was well-supported by Smith’s 73 from 59 balls and the pair put on 173 runs for the third wicket.

Together with opening partner David Warner, Finch took the attack to the Sri Lankans after being put in to bat under cloudy skies in south London.

The pair passed 50 for the opening wicket for the fourth time in five games at the World Cup.

Sri Lanka had no answer to Finch’s brutal assault and by the time he departed, caught by Karunaratne off Isuru Udana, he had put Australia in a commanding position.

Maxwell’s quick-fire 46 from 25 balls rubbed salt into Sri Lanka’s wounds.