ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Civil war raging at home.
Football players who struggle to play or get paid.
A coach who never enters the country.
It was not a surprise Yemen exited the Asian Cup after losing all three games.
But just qualifying for the continental tournament for the first time was an achievement for a country in the grips of what the U.N. says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
With Yemen’s domestic football league suspended since 2014, there are few chances for players. Most of the 23-man squad at the Asian Cup plays in Oman and Qatar, where most of the federation is based. Only nine players in the squad are based in Yemen.
“There is no league at home and that does affect the national team in many different ways, especially physically,” goalkeeper Mohammed Ayash told The Associated Press. “It makes it much harder for us to play against strong teams like Iran, with players who play in Europe.”
Football in Yemen is virtually non-existent apart from the occasional informal tournaments held in the capital Sanaa. Most clubs have little to no income, often leaving professional players needing to seek alternative employment.
Ayash, who found work in the oil industry before securing a move to Iraqi club Erbil last November, said divisions in Yemen are not reflected in the national team.
“The spirit is strong, we are together on this journey,” Ayash said. “If we were not united then we would never have been able to come here at all.”
Yemen benefited from the expansion of the Asian Cup from 16 to 24 teams. Qualification was clinched in March 2018 with a victory over Nepal in the Qatari capital of Doha. Yemen has not played home games since 2011 when anti-government protests broke out during the Arab Spring.
Abraham Mebratu, an Ethiopian coach, delivered qualification but left the job after being unable to get financial backing for tournament preparations. Jan Kocian, a Slovakian, is in charge.
Ranked 135 in the world by FIFA, Yemen was thrashed in its opening game at the Asian Cup 5-0 by Iran, which is 106 places higher. Games against Iraq and Vietnam also ended in defeat. Yemen left the United Arab Emirates with no points and no goals but with pride at just having participated.
“Our problem is that the players abroad in Qatar and Oman did not have time for preparation and the players in Yemen can’t play football as there are no league games there,” said Kocian, whose contract states that he does not enter Yemen. “When you have more time, you can do more.”
The greatest achievement may be giving fans at home and in the UAE a chance to cheer on their team in a major international tournament.
“I’m very happy to see people from Yemen in the UAE,” Kocian said. “For people in Yemen the situation is very bad, for those who stay there the life is very hard. But maybe with victory we can give a good representation of them in the Asian Cup.”
Story: John Duerden