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.”


Saudi Arabia enjoy more golden success at Special Olympics

Updated 19 March 2019
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Saudi Arabia enjoy more golden success at Special Olympics

  • Kingdom's athletes claim three golds, one silver and three bronzes on day four in Abu Dhabi.
  • Saudi Arabia medal tally now up to an impressive 25.

LONDON: Saudi Arabia enjoyed another good day at the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi winning three golds, one silver and three bronzes to take their medal tally to an impressive 25 after four days.
Abdulaziz Alharthi got the day off to a great start in the pool, the 17-year-old from Jeddah picking up gold in the men’s 25m freestyle.
That was then followed up with the second gold of the day as Mohammed Alolayan powered home in the 5,000m. It was his second medal of the Games after he took home a bronze in the triathlon.
Moayed Aldarwish completed the hat-trick of golds coming home first in the 400m.


That was not the end of the success for the Kingdom as Fares Almateq and Naif Alshammari won silver in the men’s doubles table tennis. This was Fares’ second win of the week, having impressively won gold in the men’s singles event earlier.
Heba Shawli then became another multiple-medal winner when she took home the bronze in the softball throw event — she having won gold in the 25m run event.
Faisal Algosaibi and Faris Khouj, also part of the 4x100m freestyle relay team, each won bronze in their division of the 25m freestyle swimming.


Other winners of multiple medals include Hassan Alhadhariti, who won three golds and one silver in powerlifting; Sara Felemban and Jana Albeshri, who both won silver in bocce women’s singles and women’s team events, and Shahad Sunbul, who won silver in the bocce women’s team event and bronze in the bocce women’s singles event.