Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Yemen's long road to the 2019 Asian Cup

How a country wracked by civil war qualified to the 23 nation cup for the first time in 40 years

Yemenis watch a broadcast of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup group D soccer match between Yemen and Iraq, in Sanaa, Yemen, 12 January 2019. EPA
Yemenis watch a broadcast of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup group D soccer match between Yemen and Iraq, in Sanaa, Yemen, 12 January 2019. EPA

How to deliver exceptional football performances in a country without a functioning league and no training camps is a question which has preoccupied Yemeni goalkeeper since his country descended into civil war in 2015.

“Of course, the player’s form will be massively affected, and the national team’s results will dip as a result,” said Mohammed Ayash, who is currently in the UAE representing his country at the Asian Cup Tournament.

His country is in the throes of a conflict which has killed tens of thousands and brought half the population to the verge of famine. Considering the turmoil, football is no longer considered critically important to the average Yemeni as the more immediate challenge of survival and protecting family members take precedence.

Former footballers are now struggling to make ends meet as drivers, teachers, shop-workers and even street vendors. Organised football is now almost non-existent. League play in all divisions has been suspended since the outset of the war in 2014. Clubs struggle to pay their players or repair damage to stadiums and training facilities.

All these dilemmas make Yemen’s advancement to their first Asian Cup in over 40 years even more remarkable.

The Yemen team before their 2019 AFC Asian Cup group D soccer match between Yemen and Iraq in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 12 January 2019. EPA
The Yemen team before their 2019 AFC Asian Cup group D soccer match between Yemen and Iraq in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 12 January 2019. EPA

To keep their focus on football, the Yemen Football Association had to assume a position of neutrality. Political interference has been a menace to the sport across the Middle East, with Kuwait and Iraq slapped with suspensions by FIFA in recent years for government interference in the sport.

Abraham Mebratu was selected to coach the team. An Ethiopian who has been involved in Yemeni football since 2010, coaching the country’s Olympic football team for four years, eventually leading them to the under-22 Asian Cup in Oman in 2013.

Head of the qualifying campaign, the association held trials in both rebel-held Sanaa and Aden so that players living in areas under control of Houthi rebels had the same chance as those living in areas controlled by the government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. But with local play suspended Mr Mebratu also looked abroad to fill the squad with talent from Yemeni footballers playing in overseas leagues.

“There was no league in Yemen, which made it difficult to select players, players who were in good shape physically and tactically,” said Mr Mebratu.

Mr Mebratu’s men were placed in a group containing the Tajikistan, Philippines and Nepal. Each team had to play both home and away, which was a problem for Yemen. The country has been banned by FIFA from hosting national team fixtures since protests broke out in 2011, so Qatar acted as temporary hosts for Yemen’s Asian Cup qualifying fixtures.

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As well as hosting matches, Doha hosted training camps where Yemeni players from as far afield as Brazil could practice together. Qatar has also recruited several Yemeni footballers to play in the Qatar Stars League.

“To be honest, if Qatar hadn’t stood by the national team and accepted to allow Doha to act as hosts for the team’s qualification matches, then assembling players and escaping the war would’ve been much more difficult,” said Yemeni sports journalist, Assem Al Nahmi.

Even to get to their overseas training camp was a challenge for the Yemen-based footballers. With airspace closed, players travelled up to 36 hours by bus to cross the border into Saudi Arabia or Oman to travel onwards.

On March 17 2017, the team started their qualifying campaign well with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Tajikistan in Doha, with the winning goal swept home by captain Alaa Al Sasi. The team then achieved four successive draws, including during an away game with Nepal during the month of Ramadan, which they prepared for through a training camp they held in Egypt, where they played a friendly against the Egypt national team on May 13, 2017.

On the flipside, Mr Mebratu’s men remained unbeaten, and within grasp of a place in the 2019 Asian Cup. All they needed was a win in the final game against Nepal to push them ahead of their nearest contenders, Tajikistan.

The fateful match in late March saw Yemen’s star player Abdulwasea Al Matari score a memorable brace to secure Yemen a 2-1 victory, and a place alongside 23 other nations in the 2019 tournament.

“For the players, it was a great honour just to represent the national team. The players were determined to make history for their country,” Mr Mebratu said. “All the players were cooperative and worked hard. It was very tough, but thanks to God we made history.”

Nine months after that historic win Yemen entered their first Asian Cup in over 40 years. But the team under new manager Jan Kocian had been unable to meet for a proper training camp.

The team did partake in a short camp in Saudi Arabia in November, where they played the country’s national side on November 16. In the same month, Yemen’s national team faced Asian Cup hosts UAE in a friendly match on November 20.

So far, in the tournament, the team on the receiving end of heavy defeats to group favourites Iran and Iraq, 5-0 and 3-0 respectively.

With a game against Vietnam still to come on Wednesday, the team still has the chance to earn their first ever point at the tournament. But even if they go home empty-handed, their against the odds qualification is a win itself for a nation desperately short of good news stories.

Updated: January 15, 2019 08:29 PM

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