Aden says politics has ruined sport in southern Yemen
ADEN, YEMEN // Sitting with friends in front of the Sharaf coffee shop in Aden's Crater district, Adnan Baharoun, a former gymnast, recalled a time when southern Yemen prided itself on its sporting prowess.
"Aden has known different kinds of sports for many decades and sport saw its prime time during the 1970s and 1980s but since the unification, sport in Aden has been neglected," said Mr Baharoun, 52.
"We have seen bad moments where athletes left the south because of the infighting among politicians in the 1980s but since the unification, this is the worst moment for sport. There were playgrounds in schools and neighbourhoods but they were looted by influential officials. There were swimming pools and gyms but they were neglected."
For the former athlete and his friends, it seems the resentment from the Yemeni southerners is not restricted to political and economic marginalisation.
They also blame the government in Sana'a for the demise of the region's sport.
Last week, Yemen defied security fears and hosted the 20th Gulf Cup football tournament in Aden.
While the organisers said the event was a success, for many Yemenis in the south, which unified with the north in 1990, it just served to highlight their claims of marginalisation.
Yemen's national football squad contains just four players from the south, an evidence, Mr Baharoun claimed, that the team is biased towards the north.
"The Gulf tournament is a political rather than a sport activity. Our team did not play but that of the tribes. They have not picked up good players from Aden," Mr Baharoun said angrily, referring to the northerners where society and culture is dominated by tribes.
Official reports said more than 600,000 fans, including 100,000 women, showed up to support the national team. But they were left disappointed when Yemen crashed out of the eight-nation tournament after being defeated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
For Mr Baharoun, the early departure of the Yemeni national team was a result of the players not being selected on merit. The country's football association's bias towards the north marred the selection process, he said. For many, the huge turnout of fans was simply because the people of Aden adore the game.
Under British rule from 1839 to 1967, Aden was not only one of the world's busiest ports, but also home to the first football club on the Arabian Peninsula. Al Tilal club was founded in 1905 under the name of al Ittihad al Mohammedi.
"Are there not players from Aden?" asked Khalid al Hobani, 50, one of the men playing cards outside the coffee shop. "We used to have strong football teams in the south; they spent through their nose on the coach for the Gulf Cup, while in the south we used to have local coaches and our performance was much better," he said, referring to the current Croatian coach of the Yemen team, Srecko Juricic.
Mr al Hobani, whose face was marked by blue ink as a sign that ha had lost the last card game, said other sports used to thrive in Aden such as basketball, volleyball, table tennis, gymnastics, boxing, and swimming.
Southerners also complain that they were excluded from the participation in running the Gulf Cup tournament, which has been run in the southern provinces of Aden and Abyan.
Jameel Thabet, 63, a football and tennis player, is one of the leading figures of sport in Aden. He has held administrative positions in various sports clubs in the city. "It is unfortunate that the event is run in Aden but we and other people with a bright sporting history have been excluded from the committees running the tournament .… We hate the sectarianism they are boosting but they have even brought the gardening supervisors from Sana'a … They have not even invited us to the opening ceremony. What united Yemen are they talking about," Mr Thabet told al Malaab sports newspaper.
Ahmed al Hamati, the information deputy minister and head of the tournament media centre, denied that sport in Aden had declined or was neglected after the unification.
"Sport declined during the totalitarian regime in the south; clubs and teams deteriorated but not after the unification," Mr al Hamati, a southerner, said.
He said the Gulf tournament will revive the sport activities in Aden where many football stadiums and clubs were renovated. He also denied that sport leaders and athletes were excluded.
"I know many names and they were taking part in the event. But I am not sure about the criterion for the selection the footballers," Mr al Hamati said.
In 1990, a union between the Marxist-led south and tribal-dominated north was reached. But the deal between the People's General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party fell apart and a political crisis developed, which led to civil war in 1994.
The socialists were crushed by the army of the current president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also ruled North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. Since the civil war there has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction in the southern provinces, but it was only three years ago that a separatist movement started gaining ground.
Dozens have been killed in protests by people complaining about economic and political marginalisation.
Updated: December 5, 2010 04:00 AM