By Omar Almasri
It has long been regarded as one of the poorest nations in the Arab world, run by a tyrannical and corrupt government with a historical north-south political divide.
In many unstable nations, football acts as a tool for positive change. But in Yemen, a country of high illiteracy, insecurity and desperate instability, the world’s most popular sport is only now beginning to emerge from the country’s nightmare past as it struggles to unite the nation.
To get some idea of how football has been kicked from pillar to post in Yemen, you have to delve into its place in Yemeni society. For many years, the country was divided into two halves, North and South, with both nations kicking off their international football campaigns in the summer of 1965.
Neither had the best of starts, North Yemen losing to Sudan 9-0 and South Yemen being hammered 14-0 by Egypt. Since then both have under-achieved though the south did manage reach the Asian Nations Cup in 1976.
Although North Yemen’s international baptism hardly got off the ground – they were plunged back into the footballing wilderness between 1966 and 1984 – the two countries continued to play friendlies against each other to promote the false notion of togetherness.
When they finally did unite in 1990 and a 32-club national league was created, teams were selected to ensure that both sides received equal representation as the government continued to try and present the idea of a fully integrated Yemen.
The same applied at national level, with each side allocated 16 players each and team line-ups alternating between players from the north and south. Likewise the captaincy.
Alas, just four years later, civil war erupted in 1994, edning in defeat for the south, with its capital city of Aden being taken over and Sana'a being established as the single capital.
That, in effect, scuppered any chance of significant footballing development. North Yemen's FA may have been originally founded in 1962 and joined FIFA 18 years but today it is very much one of the region’s also-rans.
The league that was set up 1990, the year of unification, still survives with 14 clubs in the top division, 20 in the second and the remaining 258 in the third. But all clubs rely on donors due to declining support. Domestic games are rarely broadcast live, with fans preferring to watch overseas leagues -- especially Spanish football which is the most popular amongst Yemenis.
Yemen’s most successful side is Al Ahli, who have won the league a record 10 times, but it’s no surprise, given the poor quality of domestic football, that Yemeni clubs have largely underachieved in continental competitions and regularly failed to qualify past the group stages.
Off the pitch, Yemen’s cause has hardly been helped either. Briefly in 2005, Yemen’s FA were suspended at one point by FIFA 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 2006 Yemen was forced to withdraw from the Asian Games football tournament when the team was unable to afford a drug test after some of their players were accused of using the banned substance Khat. And the U-16 side was then kicked out of the2008 AFC Championship for fielding an over-age player.
Not surprisingly, the latest FIFA rankings place Yemen at 148thin the world. They got knocked out of the second stage of World Cup 2014 qualifiers at the hands of Iraq and even their most famous player Ali Al-Nono is regarded as somewhat of a journeyman, plyin g his trade in various Middle East leagues without much of a fanfare.
Even in the regional Gulf Cup Yemen have left little impression. A few months before they hosted the 2010 tournament, a bomb went off at one of the country’s football clubs, Al Wahda, killing three and injuring 17 others. Terrorism threats are never far away, raising questions about the country’s readiness to stage major events. The government reacted by spending $600m millions of dollars on a massive renovation, security and infrastructure programme and gave permission for the south to become hosts. Typically, it was another political football, if you’ll excuse the pun. Only four players from the south were selected for the national side, with prominent sports figures claiming that they were excluded from the organizing committee and weren’t even invited to the opening ceremony.
The tournament itself, it has to be said, was a huge success financially even if, once again, Yemen failed again to get past the group stages. Then came the Arab Spring and on February 11, 2011, the country finally rebelled.
Moments after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled, Yemen launched nationwide protests against long time autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh whose wealth was estimated at between $10- 35 billion even though 45% of the country lived below the poverty line.
Saleh didn’t let go of his grip on the nation without a fight. Hundreds of Yemenis were killed and thousands more injured. And football once again became involved became embroiled in politics. Clubs like Hassan Abyan and Al Sha’ab Hadramaut showed solidarity with the protestors by refusing to play for the remainder of the season while Saleh tried to show nothing had changed by posing for pictures with the U-17 side.
Stadiums also became the centre of attraction for all the wrong reasons. A clash in front of the gates of the May 22 Stadium between pro and anti-government protestors resulted in seven deaths.
And yet, amid all the bloodshed, football did manage to find its way into the hearts and minds or ordinary Yemenis as they packed in front of a TV in Change Square to watch the “Clasico” between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
And now, at last, there is a glimmer of hope that some kind of progress is being made on the field too. The nation’s under-16 side have just qualified for next Asian Nations Cup to be held in September, topping their group in convincing fashion ahead of Kuwait. It may be only a minor development but it bodes well for the future.