Tuesday, June 07, 2016


Yemen's Unlikely Journey Continues

There is rarely anything stable about football in Asia and that uncertainty perhaps is one of the reasons that makes it so vibrant and interesting. Indonesia get thrown out of FIFA and their clubs are forced to pull out of the AFC Cup. Kuwait get kicked out and their clubs, Qadsia and Kuwait SC, are also told to leave the competition despite having dominated it the last few years.

But even the tale of Yemen takes some beating in an area where WTF moments are so common people hardly notice them anymore.

In a region blessed with oil and gas countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been pumping money into football as a form of soft power, a way of raising their profiles on the international stage. Qatar hosted the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, sponsor Barcelona and will host the 2022 World Cup. The emirates of the UAE are busy doing their thing with national airlines allying themselves with top football clubs while the country itself will host the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Yemen has neither oil nor gas. What it does have are warring parties vying for control of the nation while Arab 'allies' are flying sorties overhead in support of a regime that is battling proxies of Iran. The schism of Islam, Sunni against Shia, being fought in the poorest of Arab nations.

Against that backdrop you would perhaps excuse Yemen from competing in any kind of football at all. That they are on the verge of reaching the Third Round of Qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup is little short of remarkable. And remarkable is a pretty good word to describe their journey so far.

Being among the 12 lowest ranked nations in Asia Yemen were forced to play in a home and away First Round tie and were drawn against Pakistan. Given the violence in their own country Yemen were forced to play the first leg in Qatar, ironically part of the coalition raining weapons down on their homeland, and with goals from Al Matari, Bogshan and Al Sasi they made short work of the visitors winning 3-1.

After the game Pakistan recognised they had been up against a good team and posited the second leg in Lahore should offer no obtacle to them. 'For Yemen even Pakistan will be like a neutral venue,' said former national team captain Ali Nawaz Baloch. 'They weren't playing at home  because of the unrest in their country. They were playing away for them playing in Pakistan or Doha is the same thing.'

Except the game was not played in Lahore. Or anywhere else in Pakistan for that matter. Suicide bombings in the city caused Yemen to cancel their training session in the city and while they did manage a work out the day after the bombings the violence had left them feeling nerby. The national team doctor Mohammed al Khumesi said 'We're worried about the uncertainty. They players are upset and afraid and I don't think they are mentally prepared to play the training session isn't enough.'

As it happened FIFA called the match off the day after the bombings, deciding the tie would go ahead in Bahrain. The game ended 0-0 and Yemen had earned their ticket to the Second Round Group Stage where the top teams could also make progress in the World Cup.

Yemen were drawn with Uzbekistan, North Korea, Philippines and Bahrain and even before they had played their first game the national team were again making headlines. With no foreign teams able to visit the country since 2010 Yemen again were forced to play their games on neutral soil and again it was Qatar who came to the rescue. But with Yemeni airspace closed thanks to the coalition bombing sorties the players had to find alternate means to covering the relatively short distance. 

Their first home game was against North Korea and with the roads out of the country dangerous the squad boarded a boat heading to Djibouti, a 13 hour sail in dangerous waters with pictures of the players sitting in cramped conditions going viral after they were posted on the Facebook page of sports minister Rafat Ali Al Akhali. In 2010 Yemen had hosted the Gulf Cup of Nations, now they were being forced to travel by rickety boat just to catch a flight to Doha. 

The coach at the time, Czech Mirosalv Soukup recognised the difficulties his team faced. 'Everything is destroyed in the war. The grounds, the domestic league...everything. At my first meeting with them I have told them to focus on the positives. There are few but what else could I tell them? Football's not bigger than life and death is it? But look at these players. They know that if they win people in Yemen will be happy. At least some good news in these distressing times.'

Yemen lost the game 1-0 but having fielded an illegible player, Mudir Al Radaei, FIFA, showing a distinct lack of sympathy to the hard pressed Yemenis, intervened and awarded the game 3-0 to North Korea. 

Five days later and Yemen were hosting Philippines in the same city. The visitors won 2-0 to go top after their opening two games and Yemen were ensconced in bottom place. A trip to Tashkent saw them go down 1-0 against Uzbekistan and while bahrain had shown some neighbourly love by hosting Yemen's game against Pakistan they showed FIFA type sympathy on the pitch, thrashing them 4-0.

Four games in and Yemen's dreams of heading to Russia were gone. Four losses without a goal scored it had been a  tough start to their campaign and things weren't going to improve any time soon. The prospect of Yemen meeting North Korea must have been the source of some gallows humour for some as this extract from a Guardian piece suggests 'North Korea played Yemen in Pyongyang, the sealed military dictatorship aces seeing off the civil war torn stars 1-0 thanks to a far as I can tell both countries were basically on the edge of war.' Certainly football must throw up some interesting dinner table conversation and you can't help wondering how the players from Yemen with their families under aerial threat 24/7 felt about being compared to North Korea with its grandiose buildings and theatrical traffic cops waving on non existent vehicles.

Finally some joy for Yemen came from their trip to the Philippines, sub Ahmed Al Sarori scoring the only goal late on. It was to be Yemen's only highlight as defeats in their final games against Uzbekistan and Bahrain cemented their place at the bottom of the group with just those three points from the Thriller in Manila and two goals to show for their efforts. Still, at least they had the consolation of trying for the AFC Asian Cup and an away win in Maldives has set them up nicely thank you for the second leg in Doha. Now the Maldives may have their own problems, coach Rikki Herbert recently stepped down but Yemen, perhaps looking at the pristine beaches, won't have toomuch sympathy. A point in the second leg would be enough to secure their spot in the Third Round and given the trials and tribulations they have faced so far that would be some achievement.

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