“THE STATE OF THE SPORT IN GENERAL, my dear brother, has deteriorated since the 1990s because politics got mixed in with it,” states Mukhtar Mohammed, a sports journalist for Yemen’s Al Ayam. “Everything from selecting players, coaches and administrators – politics got involved.”
The statement by Mukhtar sums up the negative impact of political interference in the sport’s affairs in Yemen. This political obstruction and meddling was first noticeable in the goal and mission of uniting a once divided nation. As football fans we’ve been informed by those involved in the game from players, managers, owners, and even the head of FIFA of the repeated and tedious cliché’ “politics and sports don’t mix with each other,” in contrast to Mukhtar’s above notion.
But Yemen, a nation steeped in history and a once venerated, innovative and rich civilization from the Sabaean Kingdom to the Rasulid Dynasty, led by influential and idolized figures like Queen Arwa Al Sulayhi before suffering the anguish of colonialism and separation, tried to dispel that cliché.
Political instability: When football becomes a tool for unity
Due to the aftereffects of colonialism and separation, both North and South Yemen suffered from political instability throughout their existence – although the South did benefit from a Marxist regime. This slightly more stable political environment gave the South more breathing space to place a strong focus and emphasis on sport in the country.
“Whoever says that both North and South Yemen were stable is wrong, but the latter seemed to an extent have a more stable political environment,” Al Malaab editor Sami Al Kaff wrote in an article for Yemeress in 2013. “This environment helped in the secretion of an active and effective sports movement that was also helpful on a community scale based on disciplined administrative work within the framework of tough laws. There was real attentiveness and full awareness of the importance of sports and exercise, whether it was in clubs or schools through all phases and stages of an important, indispensable even, component of civil society in South Yemen. And this despite of a scarcity of financial resources and clear destitution of its infrastructure.”
South Yemen’s upper hand in the football arena was demonstrated by the early establishment of its first football club, the first in Yemen proper, Al Tilal in 1905. Al Tilal’s early establishment emphasized the amount of attention South Yemen placed on football, with its roots in the South originating since the early 1900s and culminated in their historic participation in Asia’s biggest football tournament in 1976 – Yemen’s sole appearance in the tournament – in contrast to the North where the sport was almost ignored and neglected until the mid-1970s. All that was about to change, however, especially for South Yemen, when the idea of unification took centre stage, becoming a reality in 1990.
“I believe that the sport in South Yemen before 1990 was much better than in North Yemen,” states Akram Obaid, editor of Yemen Goal and media coordinator for Yemen’s Al Wehda. “This is due to the fact that the sport’s roots trace back to the early 20th century particularly during British occupation. During this period, national sides of all groups and ages stood out with a number of talented players.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, as documented by Thomas Stevenson and Abdul Karim Alaug in an article among their broader studies devoted to Yemeni football and its political utilization titled ‘Yemeni Football and Identity Politics‘, both North and South Yemen 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.
According to Stevenson and Alaug, when the two countries finally united in 1990, the new government used football as a political tool to promote the unification through the use of the newly-unified country’s first football season. Additional teams were selected to ensure that both sides, the North and South, received equal representation. Thirty-two teams were involved and each played seven home and away matches, with spectators holding banners in support of unification.
Not only did the government try to promote a united Yemen through the football league, but also through its national side, where each state was represented with 16 players, there was an assistant coach from each and its roster alternated between a player from the North and a player from the South. The captaincy also alternated during matches, all for the promotion of a united nation, the notion of one Yemen – a unified Yemen.
“At the time of union, 1990, the government did use sports to promote the idea of unification,” Stevenson told These Football Times. “These actions were short lived. Like all policy in Yemen it was limited to the moment, almost no policies were sustained which explains Yemen’s limited political advance.”
This new, united Yemen didn’t last long and civil war erupted between the two states in 1994. It also led to the cancellation of the 1993-94 league season. The war lasted several weeks, ending in defeat for South Yemen after they lost their capital city of Aden to the North, who controlled the country and established Sana’a as the nation’s capital.
To curtail the aggravation and anger of South Yemen over the events emanating from the civil war and their defeat, Ali Saleh placed special focus on their most well-known clubs, Al Wehda and Al Tilal, through financial support and the placement of political figures as their heads. Since then, the interest and attention shown by South Yemen to the sport had diminished as the new government, led by long-time president Ali Saleh, focused on individual and personal interests, which hurt not only the sport, but the entire nation with severe unemployment, corruption and security concerns the norm.
“In my belief, the idea of managing the sporting sector politically didn’t occur until the later years of the country’s unification, well at least in the north,” says Mansour Garadi, sports editor for Al Saba News Agency. “It was still foreign, however, for those in power, who were busy and focused on political conflicts and struggles during the 1950s and even till this very day.
“In the late-90s, the idea of political involvement in the country’s sporting ventures, clubs, federations and activities began to take greater shape, as seen with the creation of a fund for Youth and Sports where around three billion Riyals were allocated to cover the sporting expenses. Yemen’s Gulf Cup participation just enticed more political involvement as shown by a relative of Ali Saleh’s, Abdul Elah Al Qadhi, heading the football association.”
The use of political and military figures within the sporting spectrum through high-ranking positions at clubs and organization got so rampant that the sport’s governing body themselves, FIFA, had to step in and suspend the country’s Football Association in 2005, citing “serious interference by political authorities in the internal affairs of the association”.
“Saleh personally cared for the sport and there are a plenty of actions and stances that support that notion,” claims Yemeni sports journalist and analyst Al Ezi Al Esami. “But people within his regime tried to slither in and take advantage of the sport for their own political gains. Clubs, especially those based in the capital Sana’a, received plenty of backing and support because their bosses followed and supported the regime and those who weren’t in support didn’t receive that kind of backing.
“Another example is in Aden, where Saleh placed his son-in-law, Ahmed, to look after Al Tilal – one the country’s most prestigious sides – and suffice their needs and wants to show that he cares for clubs in the southern region of Yemen. And soon after Ahmed left, the club fell to the wayside.”
Hosting the Gulf Cup and cloaking the nation’s well-documented shortcomings
Since 2003, Yemen has been participating frequently in the Gulf Cup, held every two years without leaving much of an impression. Then came the 2010 edition, which Yemen itself hosted. Trouble and concern arose before it even kicked off when two bombs went off at one of the country’s football clubs, Al Wahda, killing three and injuring 17 others. A separatist movement from the southern region called Al Harak was threatening to prevent the country from hosting the tournament in response to government allegations of their involvement in the Al Wahda attack.
The government did everything to dispel those concerns as well as clothe the nation’s endemic issues, spending millions of dollars on renovating, rebuilding and creating stadiums, hotels, training centers, and roads. Some of these included the conversion of 120 hotel rooms into 5-star standards with around $600 million to $1 billion in total reportedly allocated to fund these projects, like the $200 million Al Qasr tourist complex and improving the infrastructure, along with the deployment of around 30,000 troops to ensure the safety of the participants.
“If we exclude the Gulf Cup event itself, then there were several projects in Aden, Abyan and Lahej that occurred and initiated due to the event as well as for purely political reasons,” says Abdulrahman Aqeel, editor of Al Ahali newspaper and who was a part of Yemen’s Olympic football management team. “The amount paid on these projects as well as renovations and such would be enough to re-build the entire country. If one stadium, Al Wahda, cost between 500 million to 16 billion Yemeni Riyals, then what about the rest?”
To rub salt to the wounds, the Yemen Post – a popular local newspaper – reported officials forcefully relocating homeless Yemenis hailing from some of the country’s host cities along with the capital Sana’a away from the viewing public during the tournament in a bid to “clean up the country’s image”. “In our custom, you have to clean your house before you have guests. This is exactly what we are doing,” the Yemen Post quoted a senior official in Aden. “Homelessness and begging are big problems in Yemeni cities.”
“During the Gulf Cup, necessities like electricity, water, transportation, among others that the people of Yemen – particularly in Aden – struggle to obtain, even till this very day, suddenly all became available to us,” stated Ali Al Fatmi, manager of Yemeni side Al Ahram.
And it paid off in spades – financially, anyway – with a reported $600 million to $1 billion in windfall, while over 600,000 Yemenis attended matches to root for their team. But despite all the success, its people were still suffering with many issues still left unresolved, leading to widespread revolution just a year later that forced long time president Ali Saleh out of power after over 30 years of oppression and despotism, granting the Yemenis with hopes of a brighter and more promising future.
Post revolution: What future beholds the sport?
Since the onset of the revolution in 2011, which involved athletes and sporting figures like goalkeeper Issam Al Hekmi and Al Rasheed’s head of sport Al Izi Al Oraifi, who was among the revolution’s lost souls, and even clubs like Shaab Hadramaut and Hassan Abyan withdrawing from league action amid pressure from Al Harak, Yemen slid dramatically in the FIFA rankings to its lowest position of 186 in February 2014. Despite that, the nation – still engulfed by lingering political, economic and social issues, including indiscriminate and abrupt drone attacks by the United States along with the Houthi coup and subsequent onslaught by a Saudi-led coalition – produced a fine showing at the recently-held Gulf Cup in Saudi Arabia, holding both Bahrain and Qatar to a draw before bowing out with their heads held high to the hosts and eventual finalists.
“During the revolution, conflicts occurred everywhere,” states Majed Al Ahmadi, a spokesperson for Yemeni side Shaab Ibb, “And it got worse after the withdrawals of Al Saqr and Hassan from the league, along with the participation of several players from Al Saqr in the demonstrations against Ali Saleh and other athletes from different sporting realms. Most our players sided with the regime and Ali Saleh, with one exception: our captain Faisal Al Haj, who refused to join the team in accepting Ali Saleh’s invitation to celebrate the team’s league victory in the 2011-12 season at his place.”
He added: “For us, we at Shaab Ibb suffered damages from all aspects during this period of upheaval and protest. Firstly, the work on our stadium was halted and the proposed budget of around 300 million Yemeni Riyals was spent elsewhere by our district leaders. And secondly, due to security concerns, we as a club were forced to play our home matches at the Asian club tournament out of Yemen, which drained us and caused us to perform so poorly during the tournament.”
“The situation was nerve-wrecking in some provinces, but the sport kept going and helped improve relationships between us fellow players with no hint of political tension,” sayd Jalal Al Qetaa, a Yemeni footballer who’s currently unattached due to the fraught situation in the country. “The political situation affected us all, but, despite the difficulties, the decision to keep the league going was a positive one as it helped keep the sport moving, the clubs pay our wages and help us players stay in touch throughout the provinces.”
As their performances at the Gulf Cup showed, along with their under-17 side’s World Cup participation in 2003, Yemen have the talent and potential to reach further heights, but with the national league at sub-standard level and at a complete standstill at the moment, along with its domestic predicaments and turmoil, more needs to be done to ensure that very potential can one day be met.
“I can assure you that football suffers from a lack of attention and care and long-term strategy because of the absence of qualified personnel and even under this current president and new leadership the sport is still treated like some sort of luxury — they simply don’t understand the importance of it to our youth and their futures in building their talents and abilities,” states Abdulkareem Al Razi, who works at Yemen’s Ministry of Youth and Sports.
“And this is highlighted by the comedic national dialogue conference, which didn’t even include sport and building the national sides as a part of its program, except in a one single, quick mention. We need minds within the presidency to believe in the importance of sport and its values. We need to change the rigid and frigid minds that run the sport in general.”
Unfortunately, this national dialog may not be a reality for a while to come. According to a report by Yemeni Sport’s Saber Al Omda, due to the persistent security and political turmoil, some football stadiums – including those located in the capital Sanaa – can’t be used for matches, either friendlies or official. And unfortunately it’s isn’t limited to the capital.
There has also been less media coverage of the sport and crowd attendance has dwindled. The recent takeover and coup by Houthi rebels of Yemeni rule, which has led to a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition onslaught on the country leaving thousands dead and irreparable destruction in its wake, has also unnerved the sport, with frequent delays and postponements of league matches becoming the norm ever since the conflict started.
“The footballing situation is at its lowest point and it has put us players under paralysis with various activities now at a standstill,” explains Jalal. “A lot of stadia have suffered damages in many provinces, including in Sanaa where I currently reside. It’s difficult to practice the sport at the moment and the renovations of the damaged stadia will cost a lot of time and money.”
“The footballing situation isn’t pleasant at the moment and is at a standstill, and no one knows when the sport will function once again, which pleases no one, especially us athletes,” says Hussain Ghazi, a footballer for Saqr Taiz. “So many stadiums have been bombarded throughout various provinces, including Saqr’s. As long as the current situation remains, I don’t expect the sport in the country anything except continual decline because of the standstill in the game, which is sad and pleases no one. Our sport doesn’t need to go through any more problems. ”
Without political stability, corruption and genuine attention in the sport by the nation’s leaders – aside from using it as a tool to advance political discourse – Yemen will never progress despite their wealth of talent, as demonstrated by the achievements of its youth sides. Unified Yemen have never qualified for Asia’s biggest tournament, failing to emulate South Yemen’s success, and have experienced a freefall in the FIFA ranking ever since political tensions and mistrust led to the 1994 civil war, which caused the cancellation of the 1993-94 and 1995-96 seasons.
The glaring dip in the FIFA rankings highlights this freefall: 90th in the rankings in 1993 and as of February 2015, 179th. Football has definitely paid the price for the nation’s political and humanitarian trauma.
By Omar Almasri. Follow @OAlmasri