How football helped Yemenis cope with protracted war football

With more than 370,000 dead in the brutal conflict in Yemen, Yemenis have turned to their longtime love of football to help them deal with the devastation, violence and humanitarian crisis ravaging their country.

Through unofficial football matches in different villages and cities, Yemeni boys and men come together to try to live a vaguely normal life.

On makeshift football pitches of nothing but sand and rocks, amateur players demonstrate their skills to hundreds of cheering spectators from near and far.

There are no seats. Spectators range from 800 to 1,500 and usually stand up and shout during games to motivate their teams and players.

Like many aspects of life in Yemen, the official football scene was brought to a sharp halt by the outbreak of war in 2014.

In the political vacuum following the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iran-backed Houthis have sought power over Yemen, occupying the country’s capital, Sana’a and eventually ousting the UN-recognized government and its The then president, Abdul-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was backed by players in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Since the conflict began, 370,000 people have died, nearly 60 percent of them due to hunger, lack of health care and unsafe water, as the country’s infrastructure suffers enormously.

Nearly 25 million Yemenis still need assistance, 5 million are at risk of famine and the cholera outbreak has affected more than 1 million people.

Faced with the dire situation, many Yemenis have turned to football for solace, not only in unofficial competitions, but also street football.

A football match takes place on the sands of Ibrahimovic [Abdullah Ali]

According to football commentator and former al-Ahly Taiz football team player Sami al-Handhali, sports infrastructure is facing severe damage, with stadiums and sports centres being targeted or turned into military bases.

He added that while the official football league resumed in September last year, funds to support sports clubs and athletes were still scarce.

“The Yemenis arranged their activities on the makeshift football pitch, which re-energized the crowd, helped them solve their woes, and discovered new talent, who were then selected by club and country,” al-Handhali told Al Jazeera.

“These games and tournaments also help prevent the involvement of many young people in violence as it strengthens the bond between players and spectators from different regions and tribes”.

“Union with Yemenis”

While these competitions reinforce a sense of belonging to a village or province, a mood of national unity is at play despite years of divisions and two local governments.

Audiences often chanted for Yemen, calling for a home of unity and peace for all.

For 25-year-old Ramzi Mossad, these football tournaments are an opportunity to connect with other Yemenis in a way he is not used to.

As a member of the country’s Muhamasheen – a historically marginalized black minority – he was confined to the slums of Jibra, a town on the outskirts of Ibrahimovic in southwestern Yemen.

Here, Muhamasheen is far away from other Yemenis, huddled in houses made of thatch or cardboard, in areas that lack basic services such as health care, clean water, sanitation or reliable electricity.

So, according to Mosa’d, Muhamasheen’s football team “Elnaseem” was invited to a tournament in the Assayani district and played against the rest of Ibb’s team “to warm our hearts”.

“The participation of the residents of Assayani in our game is invaluable,” Mossad told Al Jazeera.

“We were overwhelmed and filled with joy and happiness when we saw the crowd appreciate us like we were residents of the area,” added Mossad, whose team won that game earlier this year Contest.

Restricted to the lowest rank and thus shunned by society due to centuries of social hierarchy, Mossad said the invitation to play was “greatly appreciated and we wanted to show others that we too have talented footballers” , and is keen to integrate into our society.”

According to Motee’ Dammaj, one of the organisers and funders of the Assayani tournament, the special tournament has been held every winter since 2017 in the Houthi-controlled area.

As many as 16 teams from the villages of Assayani and Jibla were invited, “The passion for organizing such events stemmed from understanding the love of the sport among Yemenis and the desire to energize the many war-torn Yemenis, while Strengthen the social bonds between them,” Dammaj said.

However, he added that the number of participants depends on the situation in the country at the time.

“Each year, turnout and participation from players and spectators is high, and spirit is always high. Eight teams managed to make it to the game despite severe fuel shortages posing challenges for many to attend, He said welcoming Muhamasheen to the competition was “important to break the cycle of discrimination that minorities have faced for years”.

From street football to national team

Hamza Mahrous, then 13, was one of hundreds of thousands who fled the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah in 2017 to escape escalating violence. He settled with his family in Taiz, which has experienced its own conflict and violence and has been blocked by the Houthis since 2015.

Malus has lived in the countryside for most of his life and developed a keen interest in football at a young age. Before he was replaced, he won multiple awards as a football player, and he played as a striker for his school team and local club.

In Taiz, he participated in unofficial competitions on the war-torn streets of the al-Masbah neighborhood where he lives.

He was quickly snapped up by several local teams, including Talee’ Taiz Football Club and Ahly Taiz, with whom he won the Balqees Championship.

In 2019, he was spotted by a group of scouts looking for players to join the Yemeni national team and was invited to join the under-15 squad.

“Joining the national team is a dream I never thought would come true, especially given the circumstances of my displacement and the difficult times we’ve been through,” Malus told Al Jazeera.

“But through persistence and practice, on the streets and on the football field, with the support of my parents, it happened.”

In December 2021, Malus and his teammates brought rare joy and national pride to Yemenis when they beat Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final to win the West Asian Junior Football Championship.

Yemenis poured into the streets to celebrate, some firing into the air, briefly rejoicing with pride and solidarity.

“I feel part of creating the happiness that millions of Yemenis so desperately want and need, which can only be achieved through football – they all love the sport so much,” Malus said.

“The Way to Accept My Lost Dreams”

Saad Murad, 30, said he missed the chance to continue his football career because of the war.

After more than a decade of football, Murad looks ready for the national team from school games in his hometown of Dumt to Duradan Sports Club in Yemen’s top league.

But with the league and all official sporting activities on hold, Murad’s career has hit a major hurdle. He said his only connection to his previous life was through unofficial competitions held during the winter.

“These local championships provided solace, respite and a way to accept my lost dreams,” said Murad, unable to find work amid the country’s dire economic situation.

With 32 official football clubs and national team players taking part, last winter’s match at Damt was one of the biggest football events in the country in seven years.

Demt's official club tournament
Damt’s official club tournament runs from February to April with 32 teams and hundreds of spectators [Abdullah Heidara]

According to Damt Organizing Committee member Moammar al-Hajri, the event has been held every year since 2018 through independent funds and donations, and is supported by businessmen and business entities, as well as Yemenis abroad.

“This year’s winning team won around 500,000 Yemeni rials ($2,000) and the runner-up received 300,000 Yemeni rials ($1,200),” al-Hajri said.

Such amounts are huge in a country where the local currency has been hit hard by the conflict.

With jobs lost and wages suspended, millions struggle to survive, and the situation is made worse by fuel shortages that drive higher inflation.

Mahioub al-Marisi, 50, a civil servant who played most of this year’s championships with his children, was surprised by the number of people from far-flung areas, usually on foot.

“The football pitch is sandy, but the enthusiastic spectators poured into the space around it, into the farmland, to get a glimpse of the game. People were just ecstatic and excited to be there. It restored part of the spirit of Yemenis,” he said. Say.

Away from these tournaments, 22-year-old Jameel Nasher travels almost every day to a vacant lot near his home on Taiz Road in Ibb, where he meets other football fans in the late afternoon and plays football. night.

Wearing Mohamed Salah’s No. 11 Liverpool shirt to show his love for his players, Nahir formed a squad of eight players.

On the pitch, each player wears the colourful jersey of the club he supports.

“Our love of football and the way we play in the streets is something that has never changed in our lives, it’s been ravaged by war. We grew up playing the game and it’s comforting to know that it hasn’t been taken away from us, “He says.

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