x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Football fans party amid security in Yemen

Safety first approach did not hurt an electric atmosphere for the knockout encounter between the UAE and Saudi Arabia football teams in the Gulf Cup.

The May 22nd Stadium in the Yemeni port city of Aden was full of fans waving flags and an electric atmosphere for the knockout encounter between the UAE and Saudi Arabia football teams in the Gulf Cup.

Trumpets were blown and drums beat strongly while thousands Emirati and Yemeni fans of the UAE team cheered widely.

Yemeni men and women stood in the big crowd of fans waving the UAE flag while others had stickers of the UAE flags on their scarves or painted on their cheeks.

"I have come here one week before the tournament kicked off to back the UAE team," said Muamar Abdulkawi, a 23-year-old Emirati fan, while sitting among a big crowd of UAE fans whistling and carrying the pictures of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE.

"I am so nervous and my heart is throbbing. I will not be able to come back home if we do not win," Abdulkawi said.

However, Khalid Harbi, another UAE fan, looked confident and calm. "[Srecko] Katanec [UAE coach] said he prepared a plan and the green [the Saudi team] has prepared their suits," he said jokingly.

On the other side of the stadium, a huge crowd of Saudi fans were cheering their team and waving the Saudi flags.

Mohammed al Shihri, a 35-year Saudi fan, said he came to Aden after his team qualified for the semi-final of the tournament."This is my first match in this tournament," al Shihri said while holding two Saudi flags on both hands.

"We have got good footballers and everybody in the Gulf knows this. We have performed well in the previous matches and I am confident we will win," Shihri said.

On the way to the stadium in the Sheikh Othman district, where the flags of the eight countries taking part in the tournament could be seen waving on the buildings, security fences had been set up a long distance from the stadium and fans had to be taken to the ground in buses.

It was difficult for any car except for those of the Gulf delegates and Yemeni officials to pass through the roundabout which is about 300 metres away from the outside gate of the stadium.

Reporters said their equipment and laptops were strictly searched while dozens of heavily-armed troops stood alert outside the stadium and among the fans.

The impoverished country, plagued with a myriad of security challenges, has been able to disperse the international and Gulf concerns and prove itself to be a fine host for the eight-nation tournament.

In the run-up to the competition, the government launched an unprecedented security operation involving more than 30,000 soldiers to ensure that the security situation was under control, following fears of any possible attacks by al Qa'eda or the southern separatist movement.

"It is possible for the government to organise a tournament with such heavy presence and tight security in the south but it is difficult to do in a normal atmosphere," a Yemeni politician said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"The smoothly run tournament is not a signal that everything is OK in the south."

maqadhi@thenational.ae