Last March a healthy crowd of some 7,000 people began to celebrate at the Suheim bin Hamad Stadium in Qatar’s capital Doha. Yemen had just beaten Nepal 2-1 in a qualification match for the 2019 Asian Cup, the Asian equivalent of the European Championship, which began last week in the United Arab Emirates. When the full time whistle was blown the players fell to their knees whilst Yemen’s Ethiopian coach Abraham Mebratu walked on the pitch pumping both fists in the air. It would be Yemen’s first ever appearance at a major international tournament (at least since North and South Yemen was unified in 1990), where they will be by far the biggest underdogs, and not just because they will be the lowest ranked team in the competition.
For close to four years Yemen has been destroyed by a vicious civil war that has been exacerbated by famine, disease and cruelty. It is a complex and multifaceted conflict between Houthi forces nominally backed by Iran, and a Western-backed government which has counted on the military spending of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to pummel its opponents. Tens of thousands of civilians have been arbitrarily killed and the country’s infrastructure destroyed. Yemen is currently in the grip of the worst cholera outbreak in human history.
The Sussex University-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has estimated that as many as 80,000 people have been killed so far. In October the UN warned that the continued air bombardment of Yemen by Saudi and UAE jets had brought the country to the edge of the world’s “worst famine in one hundred years”, with as many as 13 million people at risk of starvation. Who can forget the tragic pictures of emaciated babies who have born the brunt of the onslaught? Nor the images of the 40 young boys aged from six to 11 who were killed last year when their school bus was hit by an airstrike. The crowd sourced investigations website Bellingcat later identified the missile as US made, likely manufactured by Lockheed Martin and sold to Saudi Arabia.
Football would seem unimportant under the circumstances. And in many ways it is, but amongst the horror, Yemen’s national football team has been a rare good news story. The war has made football in the country all but impossible. The football league was suspended in 2014. And with the country’s main airport in the capital Sana’a frequently bombed, the players and coaching staff often have to take a dangerous overland route out of the country. In 2015, before a World Cup qualifier against North Korea in Doha, even that was deemed too dangerous. It took six days to gather the players, who each had to make their own perilous journey. From there they boarded a boat and sailed 13 hours to Djibouti. A picture of the team escaping by ferry went viral on Twitter. They lost 1-0.
That’s not to say that Yemeni football didn’t have its problems before. Ever since North and South Yemen were united in 1990, the country had experienced long periods of instability. Yemen was the second most highly armed country in the world after the US, tribal conflicts were common, resentment persisted between north and south with a growing southern secessionist movement, whilst Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups thrived in the chaos. And then there was the issue of qat, a leaf stimulant that is chewed by huge numbers in the country which has deepened poverty and increased food insecurity. In fact the Olympic football team pulled out of the 2006 Asian Games after the players failed a drugs test after chewing qat.
But, under the Yemen football association’s general secretary Hamid al Shaibani, the game was cleaned up. National players were banned from chewing qat. Results improved. In fact, Yemen even hosted a football tournament in the south of the country, renovating and building new stadiums in the port city of Aden and nearby Zinjibar for the 2010 Gulf Cup. But continued instability meant that Yemen was banned from even hosting any home matches after 2010. By 2011 the stadium in Zinjibar was being used by the Yemeni army to land helicopters carrying weapons to fight Al Qaeda insurgents nearby. 48 people, including 30 soldiers, were killed in a battle to control the stadium. The May 22 Stadium in Aden which hosted the 2010 Gulf Cup final between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was destroyed by coalition air strikes at the start of the war.
So, even though the AFC expanded the Asian Cup to 24 teams, with Yemen having to travel by boat to leave the country little was expected from their qualification campaign. But Abraham Mebratu had already enjoyed some success in charge of Yemen’s Olympic team. He set about trying to give his players as much practice as possible. “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,” he told the Arab News.
Of the current squad, nine players are still inside Yemen. Several have been killed and injured in the conflict. The lucky ones have managed to find contracts in Qatar, like team captain Ala al Sasi, or the UAE, like striker Abdulwasea al Matari who plays for Dibba in the UAE’s second tier. But, incredibly, Yemen went unbeaten in the final group stage beginning with victory against Tajikistan in Doha. A creditable 2-2 draw with the Philippines, another monster away trip, brought them to the verge of qualification. “We played all of our home games far from home but still we notched tremendous results that have made all Yemenis rejoice as one in these trying times,” Mebratu told the BBC after the victory against Nepal.
Mebratu stepped down soon after and took the vacant Ethiopia nations team job. Yemen will be led by the Slovakian journeyman coach Jan Kocian for their opening match against Iran, the country that the UAE and Saudi Arabia accuse of inflaming the Yemen conflict in the first place. But that isn’t the only political edge. The hosts, the UAE, as well as their allies Saudi Arabia, have been accused by the UN of war crimes during the conflict, including running a secret network of prisons where torture was allegedly rife. “There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” Kamel Jendoubi, the chairman of the panel of experts that produced the report for the UN, told the New York Times.
Hamid al Shaibani, the general secretary of the Yemeni FA, survived the war. Yemen’s football infrastructure has been destroyed and it will take a generation to undue the damage, if it can be undone at all. “Everything is destroyed,” said Shaibani, who now lives in exile in Qatar. “Nothing is left.”
Getting past the group stage would be a miracle, certainly greater than the 2007 Asian Cup victory by Iraq, when the country was also at war. But, as in 2007, football can provide moments of hope and unity which very few things can. God knows Yemen needs it.