#AsianCup2023: What a quarter-final win for Yemen will mean for the country and its people

Yemen flag
5 min read
23 June, 2023

Yemen are 90 minutes away from the U-17 World Cup. It almost goes without saying that for a country which has been suffering immensely due to years of conflict, this would be an amazing achievement.

The team made it through the group stage of the 16-nation U-17 Asian Championships which are taking place in Thailand, with room to spare.

On Sunday they take on Iran in the quarter-finals. It won’t be easy but in knockout games, anything can happen.

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Getting to the last eight is exciting enough but the teams that make it to the semi-finals also qualify for the World Cup that will take place later this year.

For Yemen’s young players to go and compete with the best talent from huge football nations like Brazil, Argentina, England, France, Germany and Spain would be a huge prize.

Millions at home and neutrals everywhere will be cheering them on as if any country needs international sporting success and some positive headlines, it’s Yemen.

In 2014 Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa, displacing the government. The following year, a Saudi-led coalition intervened with the aim of restoring the sunni government to power. It led to eight years of fighting, estimated deaths of around 350,000 people and general devastation.

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Unsurprisingly, football has taken a back seat and virtually came to a halt.

A recent ceasefire has provided some hope of a better future and international sporting success would really put a much-needed smile on the face of Yemenis. If any country needs good news and deserves some positive international attention, it is this one..

“It would be fantastic if they can win the quarter-final and then qualify for the World Cup,” Miroslav Soukup, the head coach of the senior Yemen national team, told The New Arab.

“Because of the situation in Yemen in the last few years, there has been almost no football played. There has been no league and the stadiums have been damaged in the fighting. It means that there are few opportunities for young players especially.” 

The fact that the teenagers have been so competitive on the highest stage of the continental stage shows that there is raw talent available.

“Technically, the players are good, as good as anywhere but it is just a lack of opportunities that holds Yemen back. They play on the street and sand pitches and have the skill but without the right facilities, it is difficult to take many players from the street who go to play well on big pitches.”

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The Yemen Football Association identified this tournament as one that offered the potential for success and have done their utmost to help.

“The team have done so well to get this far and have received more support than most in Yemen,” Soukup said. “The federation have put money into this team and given them good preparation with training camps. They played games in Uzbekistan and Egypt where I organised games against local teams and after that they went to Saudi Arabia and from there to Southeast Asia.”. 

So far, so good. The opening game was against Malaysia, a solid mid-ranking Asian power but Yemen ran out 4-0 winners. Then there was a 2-1 win over Laos that was enough to book a quarter-final berth with a group game left to spare.

“We expected that this match would not be easy,” the U17 coach Mohammed Hasan Ali Albaadani said after beating Laos. “But the team managed to achieve our aim, which is to take all three points. We respect all the teams but we are happy with the result because Laos is not an easy team to beat, so we have the right to celebrate. Hopefully, this will give us a good push… before going to the quarter-finals.”

During qualification for this tournament, Albaadani said that he wanted to spread a message of goodwill through the beautiful game. “We no longer want a war in our country. People are waiting for peace. That's why we are trying to promote peace."

The success has been there for all to see and is also the result of all different parts of the football family pulling together. Soukup is in charge of the senior side which is slowly starting to think about the start of qualification for the 2026 World Cup which will commence in October.

The Czech tactician also works with the various youth teams. “I am also the supervisor for the U17 team. We watched them for a week and worked with the players and coaches and gave them the benefit of our experience. Every day,we communicate with the coaches and we are preparing analysis through video and support the team as much as we can.

“We can help as we can provide another view as we are not in the team. The FA wanted me to be in Thailand but I said I think that the players have to know who the coach is. I think it is better when we have time to analyse and we can be useful in that way.”

If they can beat Iran then the reaction would be off the charts. “It would make the people happy, if Yemen can get to the World Cup. I also read social media and you can see what the people are thinking.”

On Sunday Yemen will be united and dreaming of what could be.

John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times,  as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden