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

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.”


Racists must be ‘kicked out’ of stadiums: FIFA boss

Updated 17 October 2019

Racists must be ‘kicked out’ of stadiums: FIFA boss

  • Infantino insisted the world body would punish racism
  • “We cannot let the racists win."

DHAKA: Racists must be “kicked out” of stadiums, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Thursday, as he pressed for a worldwide ban on spectators who abuse black footballers.
Speaking days after England’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria was twice stopped because of chants targeting English players, Infantino insisted the world body would punish racism.
“If there are racists that abuse footballers, we have to stop the game,” he told a press conference on a visit to Dhaka.
“We cannot let the racists win. The football has to continue and we have to punish the people,” Infantino said.
He added it was now easy to identify the culprits in modern stadiums with closed circuit TV and that a “strong message” must be sent.
“They have to be taken, kicked out of the stadium, they must not be allowed to enter into football stadiums any more, and criminal proceedings should be brought against them.
“It’s a crime and it should be a crime in all countries of the world to commit a racist abuse,” he said.
Infantino reaffirmed that if a country bans a spectator because of racism, “FIFA will extend it worldwide because racists have no place in football in any country and no place in any football stadium or arena in any part of the world.”
Six Bulgarians have been indicted for abuse at Monday’s Bulgaria-England game when monkey chants and apparent Nazi salutes overshadowed England’s 6-0 win. Three more are being sought.
One 18-year-old was indicted on Wednesday for using Nazi salutes and four others have been fined and banned from sports events for two years.
Infantino had already condemned the incident in a statement on Tuesday, calling racism an “obnoxious disease that seems to be getting even worse in some parts of the world.”
He said Thursday that on top of stadium action better education was needed.
“We have to educate our youth, our children and those who are a bit older as well,” he said.
Infantino also said that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar “will be the very best World Cup ever” despite new controversy over the heat and empty stadiums after the world athletics championships in September saw some long distance races badly affected.
The FIFA boss insisted that it would be cooler as the football tournament would be in November and December.
“I am sure in Qatar we will witness from a technical point of view, the very best World Cup ever.” He also expressed confidence that the stadiums would be “full.”
“Football is the number one sport in the world. We will fill the stadiums in Qatar and anywhere else in the World easily with the World Cup.”