Omar Almasri looks at a nation that has suffered more than many.
A divided nation and its people, suffering high illiteracy, the threat of terrorist attacks, a plummeting and unstable economy, a tyrannical and corrupt government and political crisis between the North and South sections of the country. These issues have long affected the stability, progress and security of the nation, leading to a revolution for better rights, living conditions and an end to a 34 year authoritative regime that has cost the lives of hundreds. Not only has this instability affected its people, but also its most popular sport, football. The country I'm talking about, regarded as the "poorest nation in the Arab world", is Yemen.
For many years, Yemen was divided and separated into two halves, North and South. Both nations began playing international matches around the same period in August 1965. They didn't have the best of starts, with North Yemen losing to Sudan 9-0 and South Yemen suffering an even heavier loss at the hands of Egypt 14-0. Both countries didn't have much success in the sport and have largely underachieved, with South Yemen making the bigger impression by managing to qualify for the Asian Nations Cup in 1976. North Yemen stopped playing international football matches altogether for a long period of time, for 18 years from 1966 to 1984.
During the 1970s and 1980s, according to researchers Thomas Stevenson and Abdul Karim Alaug, both countries held cross-over matches with each other to promote the idea and notion of one Yemen, a unified and united Yemen and to use these games to validate its political system. When the two countries finally united in 1990, the new government promoted the unification through the use of the first football season. Additional teams were selected to ensure that both sides, the North and South, received equal representation. 32 teams were involved and each played seven home and away matches, with spectators holding banners in support of unification. Even the match was held on the anniversary of the unification, displaying the government's attempts of using sports as a political tool to achieve the idea, the false sense of a fully united Yemen.
Not only did the government try to promote a united Yemen through the football league, but also through its national side. In the national side, each state was represented by 16 players each, there was an assistant coach from each state and its roster alternated between a player from the north and a player from the south. The captaincy also alternated during matches as well, all for the promotion of a united nation, the notion of one Yemen, a unified Yemen.
This new, united Yemen didn't last long and civil war erupted between the two states in 1994, four years after the unification. The war lasted several weeks, ending in defeat for South Yemen, after they lost their capital city of Aden to the North, who took over the country and established Sana'a as the nation's capital.
Yemen's FA (or North Yemen's) was founded in 1962, joined AFC in the same year and FIFA 18 years later in 1980. The football league was established in 1990, the year the country was first united. The Premier division contains 14 teams, the second has 20, and the third has the rest of the 258 clubs in the country. Its clubs rely on donors to survive due to declining support, where domestic matches are rarely broadcast in the country, whose people prefer to watch international tournaments such as the World Cup and Olympics, and European leagues and competitions, especially Spanish football which is the most popular amongst Yemenis. The league's most successful side is Al Ahli, stationed in the capital city of Sana'a, who have won the league a record ten times, while the current holders are Al Oruba. The league suffered interruptions, especially due to rising political tensions which led to civil war in 1994, and it wasn't held in the 1992-93 and 1995-96 seasons. Yemeni clubs have largely underachieved in continental competitions and have regularly failed to qualify past the group stages of various tournaments.
Yemen suffered its embarrassments off the pitch when the national side withdrew from the 2006 Asian Games football tournament because they couldn’t pay for the team to get drug tested, at a time when most of its members were reportedly using the banned drug, Khat, which is very popular in the country. The U-16 side in 2008 was kicked out of the AFC Championship for fielding an over-age player, and Yemen’s FA were suspended at one point by FIFA in 2005, on the grounds of “serious interference by political authorities in the internal affairs of the association.” The suspension was lifted later that year with the promise of elections, which were held a year later in March 21, 2006.
The national side haven’t fared any better. Regarded as one of the weakest sides in the continent and ranked at 149 according to the latest FIFA rankings, Yemen, as a united nation, have never managed to qualify to the continent’s biggest competition, the Asian Nations Cup and got knocked out of the second stage of World Cup 2014 qualifiers at the hands of Iraq. In general, Yemen have largely failed to leave an impression on tournaments they participate in. Most players ply their trade in the country, rather than move abroad and play in better and more competitive leagues. The most famous player is Ali Al-Nono, who is the nation’s all-time top scorer and is regarded as a journeyman, playing in various countries in the Middle East including Bahrain with Busaiteen and Sudan with recent league champions, Al Merrikh. Yemen achieved their best football results through their youth teams, who managed to surprisingly qualify to the U-17 World Cup in Finland in 2003. While their U-16 side achieved qualification to next edition’s Asian Nations Cup which will be held in September of this year, topping their qualifying group in convincing fashion ahead of Kuwait.
Yemen has been participating frequently in the Gulf Cup held almost every two years since 2003. They haven’t left much of an impression, not registering a single win and have failed to get past the group stages in each of their tournaments, ending dead last out of the seven participants in the 2003 edition held in Kuwait. They did achieve some memorable results, including holding Bahrain, who were the favorites to win the tournament, to a 1-1 draw in 2004 in the tournament held in Qatar.
Then came the 2010 tournament, a tournament which Yemen hosted, a tournament filled with controversy and huge security and safety concerns. The country has long been embroiled in conflict with Al Qaeda, who’ve plotted and caused many terrorist attacks, especially against tourists. A few months before the tournament, a bomb went off at one of the country’s football clubs, Al Wahda, killing three and injuring 17 others. This wasn’t the only incident; a fire broke out in the electrical control room in the May 22 Stadium, one of the stadiums expected to host of the tournament’s matches. No one was killed, but it did raise question marks over the country’s readiness to host the prestigious tournament. While a separatist movement from the southern region called Al Harak were threatening to prevent the country from hosting the tournament and were reportedly involved in the Al Wahda attacks.
The government did everything to dispel those concerns, spending millions of dollars on renovating and rebuilding stadiums, hotels, training centres, roads, parks etc. (Around 120 hotels turned into 5-star establishments). Around $600 million was reportedly allocated to fund these renovation projects and improving the infrastructure, providing the latest technology, upgrading the electrical and sound systems for its stadiums, and also upgrading its security systems with modern inspection machines, along with the utilization of around 30,000 troops to ensure the safety of the participants. Examples of these renovations and new infrastructure were the building of two hotels, Al Qasr and Aden, totaling costs amounted to around $187 million, the renovation of two stadiums, Al Wahda and May 22, which cost around 17.8 million, a new hospital which cost around $3 million and other infrastructure projects including roads, electricity, health, sanitation and communication totaling costs of around 58 billion Yemeni riyals (over $267 million). They’ve also received help from FIFA to improve the sport’s infrastructure through two GOAL projects that started in 2001, which cost around $2 million.
The government also made the decision for the southern region to host the tournament, particularly Aden and Abyan, where a new stadium was built - the Abyan International Stadium that can hold around 30,000 spectators - along with various other infrastructure projects that totaled around $74 million. The decision was a ploy designed to show that the country is united and fair, with no perceived bias against the south, who were dissatisfied with the treatment given to them by Saleh’s regime after the Civil War.
It proved to be politically motivated with just four players from that part of the region selected for the national side, and prominent sports figures in region claiming that they weren’t even allowed to participate in running the tournament, despite the fact it was hosted on their ground and weren’t even invited to attend the opening ceremony. “It is unfortunate that the event is run in Aden, but we and other people with a bright sporting history have been excluded from the committees running the tournament,” Jameel Thabet, one of the leading sports figures in the city said. “We hate the sectarianism they’re boosting, but they’ve even brought gardening supervisors from Sana’a (Yemen’s capital, located in the northern section). They’ve not even invited us to the opening ceremony….What united Yemen are they talking about.” (Quotes provided by UAE’s The National)
The Yemeni authorities have also apprehended suspects accused of trying to plot attacks against the country (they were reportedly released after the Gulf Cup) and it’s also claimed that the government kicked out the homeless who were located in places where matches were to be hosted and scattered to other locations, all to give the image of a safe and prospering nation.
The tournament was a huge success, financially, despite the disappointing performances of the national side who failed again to get past the group stages. Yemen gained over $1 billion in revenue and over 600,000 Yemenis attended matches to root for their team. But despite all this success and revenue, its people were still suffering with many issues still left unresolved. Then the Arab Spring came along….
On February 11, 2011, the country finally had enough. Moments after the success of the Egypt revolution in toppling long time dictator Hosni Mubarak, Yemen launched nationwide protests against long time President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime, to try and end the autocracy and its tyranny. Despite all the wealth of his (reports conflict between $10- 35 billion) and the huge amounts of revenue gained from the Gulf Cup, 45% of the country (in 2010) lived below the poverty line, 35% still remained unemployed, oil reserves which amount to 75% of the nation’s income were rapidly shrinking and set to disappear in the next 5-10 years, shrinking water reservoirs, lack of security and safety due to the presence of Al Qaeda, and the longtime political issues with the southern region of Yemen who’ve long protested against the regime.
Saleh, who’s rumored to own over 10 properties in the US totaling $500 million in value, a lavish 50th floor apartment in New York, and a $30 million mansion in Beverly Hills amongst other assets, didn’t let go of his grip on the nation without a fight. He and his men mercilessly fired live bullets at his own people, the people who he served for over 30 years. Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed, thousands more injured in sacrifice to fulfill the goals of the regime and put an end to the tyranny. Football clubs like Hassan Abyan and Al Sha’ab Hadramaut, showed solidarity for the protestors by refusing to play for the remainder of the 2010/2011 season. Saleh tried to use the sport to his advantage, posing for pictures with the U-17 side barely 36 hours after he returned to the country from Saudi Arabia where he spent four months in medical treatment, in an attempt to gain some sort of support for his political standing and regime.
The country’s stadiums also got involved, with some being the scenes of scuffles and fights between protestors (pro and anti) and bloody gun battles between the military and militants, including a clash in front of the gates of the May 22 Stadium between pro and anti-government protestors, where seven were killed and more than twenty others injured. Football also proved to be a small distraction from the bloody battles and protests, when many Yemenis packed in front of a TV in Change Square to watch the “Clasico” between Barcelona and Real Madrid last season.
After months of sacrifice, bloodshed, and toil, Saleh signed an agreement to step down as President ending his 34 year hold on the country. Many are unhappy because of the fact that he’ll gain immunity from all the heinous crimes he committed against his people, and protests are still ongoing.