international football

‘Miracle’ Asian Cup qualification gives war-torn Yemen a united goal – football

Qualification is a first ever for the senior team, currently based in Qatar, and a rare achievement for the under-16s who still train in Yemen.

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 is a first ever for the senior team, currently based in Qatar, and a rare achievement for the under-16s who still train in Yemen.

“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 Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Shiite Huthi 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 like cholera and diphtheria.

“We hope the team will honour Yemen and give Yemenis some relief,” said Sabahi.

The senior team beat Nepal 2-1 on March 27, reaching the 2019 AFC Asian Cup to be contested in January-February in the Emirates – for the first time in Yemen’s history.

The U-16 tournament is to take place in Malaysia in September-October.

To build the youth team, selectors travelled the length of the country, including war zones and sectors controlled by rival factions.

Ranked 125 in the world by the sport’s governing body Fifa, Yemen’s senior team has never won a single match in the Gulf Cup against its neighbours since the competition was launched in 1970.

Yemen’s media used to congratulate the team for an “honourable defeat” if they avoided a hammering. Asian Cup qualification was hailed as nothing less than a “miracle”.

Football, not politics

Paradoxically, Yemeni football has benefited from the war, with senior players relocated to a training camp in Qatar, which has the most up-to-date facilities as it builds up to hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Abd al-Salam al-Saadi, a coach in Sanaa, sees another key factor: “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 bombed or 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 agency UNICEF, more than 1,500 children have been killed in the conflict, while hundreds of minors have been recruited into militias.

‘Bring back the spirit’

After a three-year hiatus, football is making a return to Aden, which Yemen’s internationally-recognised 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 organised 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, glancing over at a nearby stadium, bombed out and filled with debris, its stands reduced to a heap of rubble.

Ahmed Hussein Husseini, head of Aden’s main sports organisation, 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.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What are racers made of?

Grit, strength and oodles of fearlessness.

Sportspersons are known for their superhuman discipline, single-minded determination and the will to overcome all obstacles. Biographies, films and documentaries have brought to the fore the behind-the-scenes reality of the sporting life. Being up at the crack of dawn, training without distraction, facing injuries with a brave face and recovering to fight for victory are scenes commonly associated with sportspersons.

Racers are no different. Behind their daredevilry lies the same history of dedication and discipline. Cornering on a sports bike or revving up sand dunes requires the utmost physical endurance, and racers invest heavily in it. It helps stave off fatigue and maintain alertness and reaction time. It also helps them get the most out of their racecraft - the entirety of a racer’s skill set, to which years of training are dedicated.

Racecraft begins with something as ‘simple’ as sitting on a racing bike; the correct stance is the key to control and manoeuvre the bike. Riding on a track – tarmac or dirt is a great deal different from riding on the streets. A momentary lapse of concentration can throw the rider into a career ending crash.

Physical skill and endurance apart, racers approach a race with the same analytical rigour as a student appearing in an exam. They conduct an extensive study of not just the track, but also everything around it - trees, marshal posts, tyre marks etc. It’s these reference points that help the racer make braking or turning decisions in the frenzy of a high-stakes competition.

The inevitability of a crash is a reality every racer lives with, and seeks to internalise this during their training. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, racers are trained to keep their eyes open to help the brain make crucial decisions to avoid collision with other racers or objects on the track. Racers that meet with accidents can be seen sliding across the track with their heads held up, in a bid to minimise injuries to the head.

But racecraft is, of course, only half the story. Racing as a profession continues to confound many, and racers have been traditionally misunderstood. Why would anyone want to pour their blood, sweat and tears into something so risky? Where do racers get the fearlessness to do laps at mind boggling speed or hurtle down a hill unassisted? What about the impact of high speeds on the body day after day, or the monotony of it all? Most importantly, why do racers race? The video below explores the question.

Play


The video features racing champions from the stable of TVS Racing, the racing arm of TVS Motor Company, which recently completed 35 years of competitive racing in India. TVS Racing has competed in international rallies and races across some of the toughest terrains - Dakar, Desert Storm, India Baja, Merzouga Rally - and in innumerable national championships. Its design and engineering inputs over the years have also influenced TVS Motors’ fleet in India. You can read more about TVS Racing here.

This article has been produced by Scroll Brand Studio on behalf of TVS Racing and not by the Scroll editorial team.