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.”


WORLD CUP REVIEW: Magic Luka Modric, Paul Pogba perfection and a blundering Brazilian

Updated 7 min 25 sec ago
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WORLD CUP REVIEW: Magic Luka Modric, Paul Pogba perfection and a blundering Brazilian

  • Our goals, players, and team of the tournament

France’s 4-2 victory over Croatia on Sunday was the best World Cup final since 1982 and closed out what was a brilliant, drama-packed tournament. Here we look back at the past four and half weeks in Russia to give you our highlights of a memorable month.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT — Belgium 3-2 Japan

In a tournament packed with tense, closely fought matches this was easily the most dramatic. With 21 minutes to go Belgium’s “Golden Generation” were 2-0 down and staring at a shock second-round exit at the hands of Japan. But they proved that alongside the flair and finesse, they also had backbone as strikes from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini levelled the score before 90 minutes. That then set up a memorable finale as the Red Devils brilliantly counterattacked in added time with Romulu Lukaku dummying for Nacer Chadli to fire home the late winner. Subs bench: France 4-3 Argentina, Spain 3-3 Portugal, Spain 2-2 Morocco.

PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT — Luka Modric

There was a moment in Croatia’s 2-1 extra-time win against England where the midfield maestro’s legs had clearly gone and he was running on pure adrenaline. Yet, even after 105 minutes Modric still went in search of the ball, still looked to create the all-important winner, he never gave up and never looked anything other than pure class. That summed up the entire tournament for the Real Madrid man, and although he ended up on the losing side in the final he was easily the most impressive player in Russia. Subs bench: Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Eden Hazard.

GOAL OF THE TOURNAMENT — Benjamin Pavard - vs. Argentina, Round of 16

There are certain ingredients you need to win goal of the tournament. A touch of brilliant technique, a dollop of great team play, a slice of “did you just see that” reaction, and for it to come at an important time in the match. Pavard’s volley from 30 yards had all four of those in abundance: 2-1 down to Argentina in the second-round clash, Les Bleus were in need of a bit of magic and while Mbappe rightly took many of the plaudits for his two goals, it was Pavard’s strike that galvanized the French and set them on their way to World Cup glory.

SHOCK OF THE TOURNAMENT — Germany’s early exit

If anyone tells you they thought the defending champions would not get out of the group, there is a very high chance that they are lying. They were ranked No.1 and, while they came into the tournament with a few issues (Leroy Sane dropped, Mezut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s photo op with Turkish president Recep Erdogan), no one thought they would depart as early as they did. They were outclassed by Mexico, needed a last-minute winner against Sweden and looked clueless during their 2-0 defeat to South Korea — it was as embarrassing as it was surprising.

LOSER OF THE TOURNAMENT — Neymar

Where do we start? We could go with the pathetic diving and play acting which would have shamed a four-year-old, the fact he rarely hit the heights that would befit the most expensive player in the history of the game, or we could go with his ridiculous haircut. But what most embarrassed him was his naked narcissism. The fact is that Philippe Coutinho was Brazil’s best player in Russia, but Neymar insisted on taking all the free kicks and being the center of attention. The sooner he realizes that football is a team game and that there are players as good, if not better, than him then the sooner Brazil may win the World Cup again. As long as they pander to Neymar’s inflated opinion of himself they have little chance.

TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT. (3-5-2)

Goalkeeper — Jordan Pickford (England): Was the star of England’s unexpected march to the semifinals.

Defense — Raphael Varane (France): The best player in the best defense of the whole tournament, sheer class. Harry Maguire (England): Made a name for himself in Russia, will be around for many years to come. Diego Godin (Uruguay): As dominant and solid a defender as you are likely to find.

Midfield — Thomas Meunier (Belgium): In a side packed full of attacking talent Meunier proved one of the most dangerous attackers from deep. Ivan Perisic (Croatia): Brilliant on the ball and always a threat, Perisic was one of the key men behind Croatia’s run to the final. Luka Modric (Croatia): The best player on the ball in Russia was also the best player in the tournament. Paul Pogba (France): How Manchester United fans will wish he could reproduce his mature and dominating performances in Russia for them. Eden Hazard (Belgium): The best dribbler in Russia was always a constant menace for opposition defenses.

Forwards — Kylian Mbappe (France): It is frightening to think just how good he can become. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium): All his goals came from open play and was one of the key reasons behind Belgium’s good tournament.

Subs bench: Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Yerry Mina (Colombia), Kieran Trippier (England), N’Golo Kante (France), Denis Cheryshev (Russia), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).