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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine prove international football seems to be war-proof

PLayers from Miroslav Soukup’s Yemen national team took a 13-hour boat journey from Aden to Djibouti, on their way to Doha where their Group H “home” match against North Korea takes place on Thursday night, writes Ali Khaled.
Yemeni children hold their national flag during a protest in the capital Sanaa against the Saudi-led military operations, on June 6, 2015. The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and their allies since March 2015. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS
Yemeni children hold their national flag during a protest in the capital Sanaa against the Saudi-led military operations, on June 6, 2015. The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and their allies since March 2015. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS

It is unlikely any of the teams kicking off their qualifying campaigns for joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup have had the kind of week the Yemen squad have just experienced.

Last Thursday, Miroslav Soukup’s men took a 13-hour boat journey from Aden to Djibouti, on their way to Doha where their Group H “home” match against North Korea takes place on Thursday night, and where their Czech coach was waiting.

The Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen had made holding the match at their Althawra Sports City Stadium, or flying to Doha, impossible.

Pictures of the Yemeni players sitting and sleeping on the ship’s crowded deck were posted on Facebook and quickly went viral.

“These images capture the great spirit of the Yemeni people,” the country’s youth and sports minister Rafat Ali Al Akhali said, conveying his pride in the team’s determination.

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That the dangerous route is the same one taken by refugees escaping the war makes the story even more remarkable.

It is just the latest example of how troubled footballing nations manage to overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles in times of crisis.

Football seems to be war-proof. Matches somehow continue to take place.

Few countries have faced hardship quite likey Yemen, but there are many tales of adversity. For countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine, it seems there is no such thing as home comfort.

In Group E, Afghanistan, who for security reasons cannot stage their matches at home, will play their first World Cup qualifier, against Syria, at Samen Stadium in the Iranian city of Mashad. At least they can expect support from a significant Afghan expat community.

The Afghans’ three other home matches – against Japan, Cambodia, and Singapore – will also be played in Iran.

Syria themselves are perhaps in an even worse situation than Afghanistan. Incredibly, despite the civil war that has devastated the country since 2012, the Syrian League is still operational. Holding international matches is, on the other hand, out of the question. Fajr Ibrahim’s team will play their four home matches in Oman, who they beat 2-1 in their most recent friendly last week.

The late switching of Palestine’s home Group A opener against Saudi Arabia to Jeddah, due to diplomatic reasons, was controversial, with the promise that the return match would be played in Ramallah on October 3.

Palestinian fans should not hold their breath.

That their team manages to fulfil its international obligations is an achievement in itself. This represents the latest blow for the long-suffering fans.

The Palestinian Football Association recently ended its campaign to get Israel suspended from Fifa for restricting the free movement of players. As recently as May 22, Israeli authorities detained Palestinian international Sameh Maraabah at the Allenby crossing point, delaying the team for three hours as they made their way to Jordan, and then Tunisia, for a training camp.

With home advantage lost, a scenario likely to be repeated against the UAE and Malaysia, Palestine’s already slim hopes of progression become almost non-existent.

Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine are not the only teams that continue to face logistical and footballing disruptions.

Iraq, who do not start their campaigns until next season after Tuesday’s scheduled game away at Indonesia was cancelled when their hosts were banned by Fifa.

Iraq will be playing their home games in Iran; the first qualifier against Chinese Taipei takes place at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on September 3.

For these countries, the constant upheaval has become a way of life that will not change anytime in the foreseeable future.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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