Yemen's young footballers give the country hope
The Under-17 team was one of just 16 to qualify for the Asian Championships that took place in June and, with wins over Malaysia and Laos, progressed out of the group stage and into the quarter-finals to face Iran.
Victory would have meant a semi-final spot and, more importantly, a place at the Under-17 World Cup that will kick off in Indonesia in November. It was a tight game that ended 0-0, with Iran winning the penalty shoot-out. For the young players, it was heartbreaking to get so close to a first-ever global tournament, but it at least showed a glimpse of a bright future for a country that has had little to celebrate in recent years.
Head coach of #Yemen Miroslav Soukup has high hopes despite an early exit:
"The game against #Iraq is our last game in the tournament, but for us, it is good motivation because the Yemeni team has been waiting for a win for a long time." #GulfCup #Gulf25pic.twitter.com/EH4c7TOqzG
— Alkass Digital (@alkass_digital) January 11, 2023
"I am proud of the team," said Mohammed Salem Al-Zuriqi, Yemen's assistant coach and a former international player. "We played strong matches, and had it not been for bad luck, we would have qualified for the World Cup. The most important thing, however, is to get to know players for the future."
Head coach of the senior team, Miroslav Soukup, watched from his homeland, the Czech Republic. "I know what the reaction would have been like had they won that game; it would have given everyone a huge boost," Soukup said. "It was a great experience for the future, which young players need as there is not much football for them."
The current climate
That is because sporting achievements in Yemen must be placed in the context of the country's dire humanitarian situation, which has meant that there has been little played for almost a decade. In 2014, Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, took control of the capital Sanaa, overthrowing the internationally recognised government.
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The following year, a Saudi Arabian-led coalition intervened to try and restore the government, and years of fighting ensued. In 2021, a United Nations report predicted 377,000 deaths by the end of that year, with 60 per cent coming from indirect causes of the fighting, such as hunger and disease. Yemen was already the region's poorest nation before the fighting began.
"I can't remember the last time the national team played at home," said Soukup, who joins the players for overseas training camps and tournaments. "The country is dangerous; most pitches have been destroyed after missile attacks, so there is not much that can be done, especially as the football federation is not rich."
Most players have to make do with short-lived regional tournaments, sporadic friendly games or go overseas. "The national football league has stopped since 2014 due to the security situation, and that has affected the level of players, clubs, and coaches," said Al-Zuriqi, a former Yemen international and native of Sanaa, who jumped at the chance to work with Soukup and the national team after domestic coaching jobs dried up.
There may not have been much domestic football, but the federation has been working hard to keep the national teams going. It has been a challenge, but the coaches have developed a system.
"We have assistants in Yemen, and we are in daily communication with the players," Soukup said. "It is not difficult to find three players for each position, and then we have a camp in Yemen, and this number is reduced to around 30, and then we have a camp outside Yemen, and we start to work with them. We also call the players based abroad, and after two or three weeks, we have a final squad of 23, and we are ready to go."
There is reason to be optimistic. Despite the lack of games and regular competitive football, the U-17 team showed that they can compete with the best in Asia, beating a mid-ranking power such as Malaysia and drawing with powerhouse Iran.
"It proves that the basic technical standards are high," said Soukup. "If there is a better environment, then Yemen could become a strong team in Asia."
That the ceasefire, signed in 2022, continues to hold is a pre-requisite. "Of course, that will help football to restart," said Al-Zuriqi. The federation has said that there will be a league in July though the exact format, schedule, and location have yet to be finalised, with parts of the country still under the control of different groups.
"We hope that the league will succeed and help the players to compete well and help the coaches to choose the players for the national teams," added Al-Zuriqi.
The next challenge is qualification for the 2024 Asia U-23 Championships that will be held in Vietnam in September. Buoyed by the success of the Under-17s, there are already plans for training camps in Saudi Arabia as well as Southeast Asia. Later in the year, qualification will start for the 2026 World Cup.
"We are all working hard and hoping that things remain stable," said Soukup. "If there can be a more normal football situation, then there is potential. There is a long way to go, but we are taking small steps."
© Deutsche Welle 2023