June 27, 2022 12:03 pm
In the midst of the brutal conflict in Yemen that has already killed more than 370,000 people, Yemenis have turned to their ancient love of football as an antidote to dealing with the devastation, violence and humanitarian crisis that is shaking the country.
Through unofficial tournaments held in different villages and towns, Yemeni boys and men come together to try and experience the vague semblance of a normal existence. On makeshift soccer fields, covered only with sand and rocks, these amateur players give their best for an audience of hundreds of people who have come from near and far to see them. There are no seats. Spectators, between 800 and 1,500 people, usually stand for the duration of the matches, shouting and singing to cheer their team and players on.
As with many aspects of life in Yemen, the official football world suffered a sharp setback following the outbreak of the war in 2014. In the political vacuum created with the ousting of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for decades, the group of Houthis, with the support of Iran, tried to seize power in Yemen. He took control of the capital Sanaa, managing over time to oust the UN-recognized government and its president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who enjoyed the support of Saudi Arabia and other regional players.
Nearly 60 percent of the 370,000 deaths in these eight years have been caused by hunger, lack of health care and unsafe water, as the country’s infrastructure is in enormous suffering. About 25 million Yemenis are in need of assistance, five million are at risk of famine, and a cholera epidemic has affected more than a million people.
With this dramatic situation unfolding, many have turned to football for some comfort, not only taking part in unofficial tournaments but also taking part in street football. Sami al Handhali, a football commentator and former player of the al Ahly Taiz football team, explains that the sports infrastructure has been severely destroyed as stadiums and sports centers have been hit by the attacks or turned into military bases.
Tournaments help keep young people away from violence by strengthening the bond between players and spectators from different regions and tribes
Although the official championships restarted in September 2021, funding for sports clubs and athletes remains scarce, he adds. “The Yemenis organize their events on makeshift football pitches, returning enthusiasm to the public and helping them face their dramas, but also leading to the discovery of new talents who were then selected by the professional teams and also in the national team,” he explained to Handhali. . “These matches and tournaments also help keep many young people away from involvement in the violence, strengthening the bond between players and spectators from different regions and tribes.”
These matches reinforce the sense of belonging to a village or province, despite years-old divisions and two opposing governments, but feelings of national unity also come into play. Audiences often go wild in chants for Yemen, calling for a united and peaceful homeland for all.
According to Ramzy Mosad, 25, these soccer tournaments are an opportunity to connect with other Yemenis in a way he wasn’t used to. Mosad belongs to the muhamasheen people – a historically marginalized black minority group – and for this reason he is confined to the slums of Jibla, a town in southwestern Yemen, on the outskirts of Ibb. Here the muhamasheen are far from other Yemenis, crammed into thatched or cardboard houses, in areas where basic sanitation, water, sanitation and a stable electricity supply are lacking.
So for muhamasheen football team Elnaseem, being invited to a tournament in the Assayani district and playing alongside other Ibb teams “warmed our hearts,” says Mosad. “The involvement of the inhabitants of Assayani in our matches is priceless. We were overwhelmed and filled with joy and happiness watching that audience admiring us as if we were locals, ”adds Mosad, whose team then won the tournament.
Rejected by society due to a centuries-old social hierarchy in which muhamasheen are confined to the lowest rung, the invitation to participate in the tournament “was immensely appreciated, and we wanted to show others that we too have talented players and are eager to integrate into our society, ”says Mosad.
By participating in the tournament, muhamasheen players have broken the cycle of discrimination they have suffered for years
This particular tournament has been held every winter since 2017 in the Houthis-controlled region, explains Motee Dammaj, one of the organizers and founders of the Assayani championship. Invitations are sent to 16 teams from the villages of Assayani and Jibla, and “the desire to organize events like this stems from the awareness of the love of Yemenis for sport, and from the desire to breathe new life into many war-torn Yemenis, also strengthening the social ties between them, ”says Dammaj.
However, the number of participants depends on the situation in the country at any given time, he adds. “Every year there is a great turnout and participation of players and audiences, and morale is always very high. Despite the severe shortage of fuel that makes it difficult for many to participate in the games, eight teams have nevertheless succeeded “, he says, welcoming the presence of the muhamasheen, which was” important in breaking the cycle of discrimination that this minority suffers from years “.
From road to national
In 2017 Hamza Mahrous, then 13, was one of hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Red Sea city of Hodeida, fleeing the escalating violence. He settled with his family in Taiz, also the scene of clashes and violence, besieged by the Houthis since 2015.
Having spent much of his life in a rural setting, Mahrous developed a deep love for football from an early age. Before the displacement, he had won numerous awards for his athleticism, playing as a center forward for the school team and for a local club. In Taiz, he played in informal tournaments that took place on the war-damaged streets in the neighborhood of al Masbah, where he lived. There he was immediately signed by several local teams, including the Tale Taiz football club, with which he won the Balqees tournament.
In 2019 he was noticed by a group of observers looking for players to recruit in the Yemeni national team, and was invited to join the under 15 team. “Entering the national team was a dream that I never thought could be realized, especially considering that I am a displaced person and the difficult times we are in, ”Mahrous said. “But with tenacity and practice, in the streets and in the football fields, and with the support of my parents, it happened”.
In December 2021 Mahrous and his teammates gave the Yemenis a rare taste of national pride and cheer as they won the West Asian Junior Football Cup, beating Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final. Yemenis took to the streets to celebrate, some firing their weapons into the air, cheering for a moment with a sense of pride and unity. “I feel I have helped create the happiness that millions of Yemenis wanted, and needed. And this was only possible through football, a game that they all love very much, ”says Mahrous.
A second chance
Saad Murad, 30, says he missed the chance to make it into a football career because of the war. After building a footballing resume for ten years, from school tournaments in his Damt town to the Yemeni first division championship in the ranks of club Dhu Reidan, Murad seemed destined for the national team.
But when the most important national championship and all official sporting activities were suspended, his career came to a halt. Today he says that the only link left with his previous life are the informal tournaments organized in the winter. “These local tournaments have given me comfort and relief, and a way to accept my lost dreams,” says Murad, who can’t find work in the country’s dramatic economic situation.
With the participation of 32 official clubs and national team players, the tournament hosted in Damt last winter was one of the largest football events to have taken place in the country for the past seven years. As Moammar al Hajri, of the Damt organizing committee, explains, this tournament has been held every year since 2018 thanks to independent funding and donations, with the support of entrepreneurs, corporate entities and Yemenis abroad.
“The winning team got a cash prize of around 500,000 Yemeni riyals ($ 2,000) and runners-up received 300,000 riyals ($ 1,200), al Hajri explains. Figures like these are important in a country where the local currency has suffered severe blows as a result of the conflict. With job losses and wages suspended, millions of people struggle to survive, and the situation is worsened by a fuel shortage that has further exacerbated inflation.
Mahioub al Marisi, 50, a civil servant who attended almost all the matches of this year’s tournament with his children, was amazed by the large number of people who came from distant areas, often on foot. “The football fields were made of sand, yet a passionate audience flocked to the surrounding spaces overflowing into the cultivated fields to catch a glimpse of the matches. People were just thrilled and thrilled to be there. He regenerated a part of the soul of the Yemenis, ”he says.
Away from these tournaments, Jameel Nasher, 22, almost every day heads to an open space near his home on Taiz Street in Ibb, where in the late afternoon he meets other football lovers to play late into the night. Wearing Mohammed Salah’s Liverpool shirt, with the number 11, to show his love for the footballer, Nasher forms a team of eight players. On the pitch it is a whirlwind of colors. Each player wears the uniform of the team he supports. “Our love of football and our playing on the street is what remains unchanged in our war-torn lives. We grew up playing and it’s reassuring to know that this hasn’t been taken away from us, ”he says.
(Translation by Francesco De Lellis)
This article appeared in Al Jazeera. Internazionale has a weekly newsletter covering what’s going on in the Middle East. Sign up here.