Qualification for Asian Cup provides respite for war-torn Yemen

Yemeni youth take part in a football match in their neighborhood in the capital Sanaa. (AFP)
Updated 17 April 2018
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Qualification for Asian Cup provides respite for war-torn Yemen

  • The national team beat Nepal to qualify for the tournament in the UAE
  • Asian Cup qualification was hailed as a “miracle.”

ADEN, Yemen: A “miracle” winning streak has propelled Yemen’s senior and youth football teams to the Asian Cup, catching the war-torn nation’s attention and offering a common goal to a divided country.
Qualification is a first ever for the senior team, currently based in Qatar, and a rare achievement for the U-16s who still train in Yemen.
“Qualification has brought Yemenis together — they’re doing us proud,” said Ahmed Sabahi, a fan in the southern port city of Aden.
“All Yemenis are behind their team,” he said.
The conflict in Yemen has left nearly 10,000 people dead, tens of thousands wounded and created what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, rife with once forgotten diseases like cholera and diphtheria.
“We hope the team will honor Yemen and give Yemenis some relief,” said Sabahi.
The senior team beat Nepal 2-1 on March 27, reaching the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to be contested in January-February in the Emirates — for the first time in Yemen’s history.
The U-16 tournament is to take place in Malaysia in September-October.
To build the youth team, selectors traveled the length of the country, including war zones and sectors controlled by rival factions.
Ranked 125 in the world by the sport’s governing body FIFA, Yemen’s senior team has never won a single match in the Gulf Cup against its neighbors since the competition was launched in 1970.
Yemen’s media used to congratulate the team for an “honorable defeat” if they avoided a hammering. Asian Cup qualification was hailed as nothing less than a “miracle.”
Paradoxically, Yemeni football has benefited from the war, with senior players relocated to a training camp in Qatar, which has the most up-to-date facilities as it builds up to hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Abd Al-Salam Al-Saadi, a coach in Sanaa, sees another key factor: “The players have not been drawn into politics.”
Yemen’s war has left infrastructure, homes, schools and ports in ruins. Dozens of stadiums have been bombed or turned into military camps for various armed factions.
For football fans back home, Yemen’s successful qualification offers a glimmer of hope and a distraction from everyday life in what was the Arab world’s poorest country even before the war.
It has “helped put a smile on the face of Yemeni youths, who need reasons to be happy and to forget,” said Saleh Hanash, another fan in Aden.
More than half of Yemen’s 27-million-population are aged under 18.
According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, more than 1,500 children have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds of minors have been recruited into militias.
After a three-year hiatus, football is making a return to Aden, which Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has declared its provisional capital while Sanaa remains in rebel hands.
The national league has been suspended but football matches are being played in the southern port city, with local tournaments organized between districts.
Football in Yemen “doesn’t gather the crowds you see next door in Gulf states,” said Fadel Al-Wasabi, one of a handful of fans seated on green plastic chairs as two clubs battled it out on a dirt pitch beside a wall pocked by shellfire.
“Maybe that’s because Yemenis are preoccupied with securing their basic needs,” he said, glancing over at a nearby stadium, bombed out and filled with debris, its stands reduced to a heap of rubble.
Ahmed Hussein Husseini, head of Aden’s main sports organization, admitted it was a tall order: “In the shadow of war we are trying, as much as possible, to bring back the spirit and adapt our lives.”


A HAT-TRICK OF HOPES: What the UAE and Saudi Arabia should be looking for from their friendly

Updated 20 March 2019
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A HAT-TRICK OF HOPES: What the UAE and Saudi Arabia should be looking for from their friendly

  • Can the Whites and Green Falcons find the back of the net more often?
  • Both teams need to set the tone ahead of the important World Cup qualifiers.

LONDON: Ahead of Thursday’s friendly between the UAE and Saudi Arabia Arab News looks at the main priorities for both sides as they embark on their new eras after the Asian Cup and ahead of the all-important the World Cup qualifiers.

FIND THOSE SCORING BOOTS

For the past 18 months both sides have struggled for goals. Under Alberto Zaccheroni the UAE scored just 10 goals in the past nine matches — five of those coming against lowly Kyrgyzstan and India — and likewise the Green Falcons have also struggled to find the back of the net. Heading toward the World Cup qualifiers, now is the time to find those scoring boots.

PUT ON A SHOW

Both sides have technically gifted players, can keep the ball and at times trouble opposition defenses. But both have been too defensive, too safety-first and, at times, too dull. Football is supposed to be entertainment, and the friendlies ahead of the World Cup qualifiers might be no bad time to throw caution to the wind and see what the players can do in the final third.

SET THE TONE

As the modern cliche goes, a week is a long time in football. With all the sackings and player movements, it is not hard to see the kernel of truth in that overused saying. But, conversely, time can also move very fast in the “Beautiful Game.” It may be six months before the World Cup qualifiers begin, but it will be September before the coaches and players know it. Set the tone and tactics now and triumphs will be easier to come by then and, more importantly, further into the future.