Yemenis find unity in football despite Asian Cup loss
From Aden to Taez, football fans gather to watch Yemen national team play against Iran
Huddled around a smartphone, a gaggle of Yemeni men cheer on the national football team, as the war-torn country battles Iran in its first ever Asian Cup.
Hopelessly outclassed, Yemen went into halftime down by three goals in Abu Dhabi on Monday night, ending in a 5-0 thrashing by Iran.
Given the parlous state of football in Yemen, where players have been kidnapped by extremists or gone off to fight in the civil war, just qualifying for the Asian Cup was an astonishing achievement for Yemen.
As kick-off grew close, the country readied itself for the game. In Aden Sinan Al Rowaini and his neighbours gathered to watch the game on his phone. In a country battered by three years of war and a damaged economy, many Yemenis can't afford a subscription to the sports network BeIn and resort to streaming instead.
"I have roamed many neighbourhoods, checking if there is any chance to watch the match on TV but it seems that all the residents in my area share the same bad luck. No one could afford subscribing to the BeIn sports channels, $400 is really unaffordable," said the young athlete.
"Where is our government?" lamented Sinan. "Our national team is taking part in the Asian Cup tournament, it is such a national occasion regardless of whether they win or lose. We are really eager to watch their matches and cheer them on, it doesn't cost anything for the government to erect screens in the streets where we can go to watch and support our team,"
On the small flashing screen, the commentator narrated the game in Spanish.
"I don't understand what he says but at least I changed my mood watching our team playing under one flag," said Yemen supporter Mansour Abdullah. "This reminds me of when we were living in peace, we really miss such nice days when we flocked together to cheer on our national team all together in our street".
The local league has been suspended and stadiums reduced to rubble, forcing players to work as taxi drivers or in supermarkets to feed their families.
Other Yemen national team players have died, among the tens of thousands killed in a conflict exacerbated by famine and disease.
"Iran won the match...I hope that it loses all the coming matches in the tournament, we would celebrate it then," said Hamza Mohammed. "Iran wreaked havoc in our country, they are behind all the troubles and the suffering we have," he added, referring to Tehran's support of the rebel Houthi group battling the Yemeni government.
North of Aden, in Houthi-controlled Taez, a large crowd cheered for the team at the Taez Tourist Club, while others gathered in a hall near the old city's Al Muthafar mosque where the office of Youth and Sport set up mega screens for the football fans.
"We didn't expect that people would come in such big numbers to watch the match because the city is still being besieged by the Houthi militia and still lives in war condition" Ayman Al Mekhlafi, the head of the Youth and Sport office told The National.
"Thousands of supporters flocked to the places we allocated for watching the tournament. They kept chanting and cheering on the national team with all their feelings," said Mr Al Mekhlafi. "However they were expecting the loss because they know that our team was playing against a strong team."
Mr Al Mekhlafi is adamant that the unexpected attendance indicates the desire residents have to restore peace and stability to the city.
"The participation of the national team in the Asian Cup is such a big accomplishment because this is the first time they reach the finals since the war flared up in our country " Mr Al Mekhlafi explained.
His colleague, Mohsen Ali Al Bakri, is hopeful that football can repair what politics has ruined.
"Tonight we have seen one Yemeni team composed of players from all over Yemen play together under the Yemeni flag and chanting for one Yemen," he said. "This is the value of football, politics disperses and football unifies, that is the truth."
Updated: January 8, 2019 06:16 PM