Despite Yemen’s war and suffer, the Yemeni national football team made the miracle and qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup, for the first time in its history. This qualification was born from the womb of suffering.
The Yemeni league is suspended and the International Football Association (FIFA) prevents soccer activities there for security reasons.
Despite the political division, the Yemeni team remained unified. The reason may be the presence of players representing most of Yemen’s regions, including the north, specifically Sanaa.
The lowest-ranked team in the competition at 135th in the world, begin their Group D campaign Monday against Iran, in Abu Dhabi, then it will take on Iraq in Sharjah on January 12 before rounding off the group four days later against Vietnam in Al Ain.
For Yemen, simply qualifying for Asia’s premier football event represents success in itself.
Earlier this Year, a “miracle” winning streak has propelled Yemen’s senior and youth football teams to the Asian Cup, catching the war-torn nation's attention and offering a common goal to a divided country.
“Qualification has brought Yemenis together – they're doing us proud” said Ahmed Sabahi, a fan in the southern port city of Aden. “All Yemenis are behind their team” he said.
Yemen’s war, pitting pro-government forces supported by a coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, entered its fourth year in March.
The conflict has left nearly 10,000 people dead, tens of thousands wounded and created what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, rife with once-forgotten diseases such as cholera and diphtheria.
“We hope the team will honor Yemen and give Yemenis some relief,” said Mr Sabahi.
The senior team beat Nepal 2-1 on March 27, reaching the next year’s AFC Asian Cup – which will be contested in January and February in the UAE – for the first time in Yemen’s history.
Ranked after 100 in the world by the sport’s governing body Fifa, Yemen's senior team has never won a match in the Gulf Cup against its neighbors since the competition was launched in 1970.
Yemen’s media used to congratulate the team for an “honorable defeat” if they avoided a hammering. Asian Cup qualification was hailed as nothing less than a “miracle.”
Football, not politics
Abd Al Salam Al Saadi, a coach in Sanaa, said: “The players have not been drawn into politics.”
Yemen’s war has left infrastructure, homes, schools and ports in ruins. Dozens of stadiums have been turned into military camps for various armed factions.
For football fans back home, Yemen's successful qualification offers a glimmer of hope and a distraction from everyday life in what was the Arab world's poorest country even before the war.
It has “helped put a smile on the face of Yemeni youths, who need reasons to be happy and to forget”, said Saleh Hanash, another fan in Aden.
More than half of Yemen’s 27-million-population are aged under 18.
According to the UN children’s fund Unicef, hundreds of minors have been recruited into militias.
‘Bring back the spirit’
After a years hiatus, football is making a return to Aden, which Yemen’s internationally-recognized government has declared its provisional capital while Sanaa remains in rebel hands.
The national league has been suspended, but football matches are being played in the southern port city, with local tournaments organized between districts.
Football in Yemen “doesn't gather the crowds you see next door in Gulf states”, said Fadel Al Wasabi, one of a handful of fans seated on green plastic chairs as two clubs battled it out on a dirt pitch beside a wall pocked by shellfire.
“Maybe that's because Yemenis are preoccupied with securing their basic needs,” he said.
Ahmed Hussein Husseini, head of Aden’s main sports organization, admitted it was a tall order: “In the shadow of war, we are trying, as much as possible, to bring back the spirit and adapt our lives.”