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.”


Mohamed Salah threatens Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d’Or stranglehold

Updated 58 min 55 sec ago
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Mohamed Salah threatens Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d’Or stranglehold

  • Messi and Ronaldo have won the award for the past ten years
  • Salah has emerged as a genuine rival after scoring 43 goals this season

LIVERPOOL: Mohamed Salah could be the man to finally break the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly at the top of world football after the Liverpool forward burnished his soaring reputation with a mesmerising Champions League performance against Roma.
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi have locked down the Ballon d’Or award for a decade, winning five gongs apiece — for the past seven years they have occupied the top two slots.
But Salah is now second favorite behind Ronaldo for this year’s award after scoring his 42nd and 43rd goals of the season in a thrilling 5-2 victory for Liverpool in the Champions League semifinal first leg.
After his first strike against his former club on Tuesday, the man dubbed by fans as the “Egyptian King” stood motionless, hands raised in apology, as bedlam broke out on a night for the ages at Anfield.
Salah’s curling effort arrowed into the top corner with such accuracy his manager Jurgen Klopp labelled it “a genius strike.”
Soon after came the forward’s signature finish, a cute dink over advancing Roma goalkeeper Alisson for his 43rd goal in 47 games for Liverpool.
When Salah, 25, made the move from the Italian capital back to the Premier League just 10 months ago for €42 million ($51 million), there were plenty who felt Roma had got the better deal. Salah after all was a talented player, but who often lacked an end product.
It also came just a few weeks before Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record €222 million revolutionized the transfer market.
The Brazilian’s desire to leave the Catalan giants was tied to his ambition to beat Messi and Ronaldo to the Ballon d’Or by stepping out of Messi’s shadow.
Now, though, it is Salah who has emerged as the pretender to end the Messi-Ronaldo domination by not only scoring the quantity of goals that have become the pair’s trademark but doing it when it really matters, in the latter stages of the Champions League.
“If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it,” urged Klopp, who has been credited with bringing out Salah’s previously untapped potential.
“To be the best in the world you need to do that over a longer period I think, and there are a few others that are not so bad.”
Heavily left-footed, small, speedy and with a low center of gravity, Salah’s characteristics are far more like those of Messi than the muscular goal-machine Ronaldo.
“In a certain light, at certain points, it is possible to glimpse in Salah a little of Messi’s afterglow,” wrote Rory Smith in the New York Times.
And he demonstrated another Messi-like quality in showing no mercy to Roma.
Chasing his first hat-trick in the Champions League, Salah would have been forgiven for going for goal as he bore down on Alisson once more after half-time.
But he showed why he is considered one of the game’s more unselfish superstars by instead creating another two goals for strike partners Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
When Salah left the field to a standing ovation 15 minutes from time, Liverpool led 5-0.
“Unstoppable (when Salah’s on the pitch),” said the back page of The Times.
Two late Roma away goals have at least given the Italians hope of recreating the incredible comeback they staged from a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Barca in the quarter-finals.
For once it is Salah’s turn to lead the way where Messi faltered on his return to the Eternal City next week.
Messi is almost certain to win a La Liga and Copa del Rey double and Ronaldo could lead Real Madrid to a third consecutive Champions League after another bucketload of goals this season.
But Salah is the coming man and after bagging the African and English players’ player of the year crowns, it is hard to back against him also conquering the world.