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.”


UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

Updated 22 January 2019
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UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni admits performances have been poor ahead of Socceroos clash

  • UAE boss still under spotlight despite side reaching lasts-eight, where they will face Australia.
  • Hosts struggled to beat Kyrgyzstan in second-round after underwhelming group stage.

LONDON: Having guided your team to the last eight of the Asian Cup, it must seem strange to find yourself on the defensive. But that is the situation Alberto Zaccheroni, right, faced after leading the UAE to a second-round win over Kyrgyzstan.
The hosts were strongly fancied to see off the Central Asians in their knockout clash in Abu Dhabi, but were taken to extra time and the likely drama of penalties when Ahmed Khalil grabbed the winner in the 103rd minute.
The performance added to the impression that the Whites have made the quarterfinals through luck rather than ability. The team has looked far from impressive during the group stage and anything but possible winners overall.
They now face reigning champions Australia — and even the UAE boss admitted they will have their work cut out unless they improve. “I admit that against (Kyrgyzstan) we seemed to struggle with long ball and crosses, and we also had one or two chances to score and secure the game, but we didn’t convert those opportunities,” the Italian former coach of AC Milan and Juventus said.
“We will try to correct all the things that we believe were less positive between now and the quarterfinals. We now have three days to assess our squad and their injuries before we face a strong Australia team.”
Usually when a team reaches the later stages of a big tournament, players and coaches ignore the performance and pretend all is grand — generally with an emphatic declaration that they will win the title.
Zaccheroni’s post-match reaction was anything but bombastic, however. That is not only a pleasant change but also an appreciation that the UAE have been anything but impressive in their march — in fact, more a slow plod — to the last eight.
This is Kyrgyzstan’s first Asian Cup, and they are far from world-beaters. Playing at home with hopes of lighting the trophy on Feb. 1, the UAE should have easily beaten the Central Asian outfit.
Goals from Mirlan Murzaev and a dramatic late equalizer from substitute Tursunali Rustamov canceled out strikes by Khamis Esmaeel and Ali Mabkhouts. On top of that they hit the bar and the post. It took a controversial Khalil spot-kick to win the match, one that left the Central Asians with a bitter taste in the mouth.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee,” Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksandr Krestinin said.
“We leave the tournament with a lot of regrets — we deserved more. It’s our first Asian Cup, but I’m sure it won’t be our last and we will come back stronger.”
There is a sense the UAE cannot play much worse than they have so far, and the hope will be that they can find a good performance in the quarterfinal against the Socceroos. If they are to shock the reigning champions, they will need Khalil to find his scoring boots again.
“Ahmed Khalil is a very good striker, he is one of the best in Asia,” Zaccheroni said of the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“When I took over the UAE team (at the end of 2017), he was injured and had not trained for a long time. He has also been injured many times recently and did not play often for his club.
“Nevertheless, he is a very good player, and I have to say that I rely on him a lot. He does so much for the team.”