Giant-killers: Yemen's victory over Saudi Arabia in West Asian Youth Cup revives sense of national unity

Yemen supporters cheer during the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup Group A football match between Yemen and Iraq at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in the Qatari capital Doha on December 2, 2019
6 min read
20 December, 2021

Cities in Yemen were drowned in celebration earlier this week. A sense of joy and unity prevailed nationwide, and for a brief moment, people were able to forget the war that they have been suffering from over the last seven years.

On Monday, the Yemen youth football team which participated in the West Asia junior football championship defeated the Saudi team in Dammam in Saudi Arabia. This football win sparked unrivalled reactions from the Yemeni people.

Despite the war, Yemen's youth football team managed to win over its opponent in the tournament's final. A team like the Saudi one is a powerful rival that enjoys enormous support, intensive training, and better facilities. Yet Yemen's football team appeared to have incredible skills throughout the game, bolstered by a strong will, and unwavering enthusiasm. They made it and snatched the cup. Yemen earned a 5-4 penalty shootout win over Saudi Arabia.

"Yemen's politicians dragged the nation to chaos and fragmentation, meanwhile its football players have brought laughter and pleasure to the people"

Amar Saleh, a 29-year old resident in Yemen's Sanaa, watched all the matches of the Yemeni team against Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. "The most exciting one was the Saudi-Yemeni match. I wanted Yemen to win because it would be a message to the world and Saudi Arabia that the war has not robbed us of hope and the love for life," Saleh told The New Arab.

Living in a densely-populated neighbourhood in the capital city, Saleh said all families set off fireworks, celebrating the Yemeni football victory over Saudi Arabia. "I did not imagine such an emotional reaction from men, women, children, and even the elderly. People in this country have been thirsty for occasions that make them proud and glad. The war has fragmented us, and I feel this football game has united Yemenis inside and outside the country."

Massive screens were set up in stadiums in Sanaa, where a sea of people gathered to watch the match. They all prayed for a positive outcome against their arch-rivals. "I feel that Saudi Arabia has hurt Yemen intensely throughout the seven-year war, the Yemeni people saw the game as an opportunity to respond to this hurt, to get payback," said Saleh. Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role in the Yemen war, and many civilians think its policy and intervention in Yemen have prolonged the conflict.

At least for a short period, the football competition has bridged differences among Yemenis. They unanimously encouraged their national team, whether in the south or the north of the country. They put aside politics or other agendas and chanted for the Yemeni players.

In Yemen's south, Aden is among the cities that witnessed resounding celebrations once the Saudi-Yemeni match came to a close. Though Aden has been an epicentre for separatists who seek to part from Yemen's north, this football event made the fans raise the flag of united Yemen.

Live Story

Fawaz Ahmed, a 32-year old local in Aden, said he joined the rallies in the city's streets, expressing joy in Yemen's victory. He told The New Arab, "People poured into the streets when the match ended. It was a moment when citizens completely forgot about other problems such as unpaid salaries, electricity blackouts, and the falling currency."

Ahmed thinks that Saudis behave as if they are always better than Yemenis in everything. "Our team has proved we can be better, and the money will not always be the sole reason for excellence in life."

He added, "When a rich country plays football against a developing country, the result may be in favour of the rich country.  This is so because wealthy countries allocate sufficient funding for sports activities. However, riches did not help the Saudi team with our national youth team. We won."

"As millions of people nationwide celebrated a football win, millions of people desire to see the conflict end and millions of internally displaced people dream of returning to their homes safely"

Several companies, business people, and politicians showered the Yemen football team with monetary rewards as a prize for their victory. To name a few, Yemen's Nobel Laureate Tawkul Karman said he would give $5000 for each player, and Hayel Saeed Anam Group announced it would provide $10000 for all the team members. Moreover, some Yemeni universities offered the players free seats to continue their education. All these offers and rewards intend to gladden the football team, especially this team created unique ecstasy and unity around the country. 

Euphoria turns deadly

The celebrations over the Yemeni football win over the Saudi rival were not limited to gatherings and fireworks. Men topped the roofs of their homes and hilariously opened fire, using rifles. According to medical sources, stray bullets left a four-year-old girl dead and about 36 injured. "It felt like a war. They were shooting in the air nonstop. I have not seen such a scene before," Saleh said.

In Yemen, it is one's right to buy a weapon, and citizens need no permits from government authorities to purchase guns such as rifles and pistols. A 2016 survey revealed that Yemen has 54 guns per 100 citizens, and it is second only to the United States.

Live Story

Various voices slammed the use of live ammunition to express joy, arguing that such an act endangers the lives of civilians. Radhya Almutawakel, co-founder and chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, said that these bullets returned to hit innocent humans.

"A revolution of joy resurrected in the hearts of Yemenis on the occasion of Yemen's youth football win in the West Asia junior football championship. Why do you pollute it with bullets and blood? There should be an official decree to ban shooting on all occasions. We long for life and gladness, and we are not short of the causes of death," wrote Almutawakel on her Facebook page.

A fleeting moment of joy has gone by, and the country still indefinitely awaits the most joyous occasion: the end of the war. No pundit can surely tell when this feat will happen. As millions of people nationwide celebrated a football win, millions of people desire to see the conflict end and millions of internally displaced people dream of returning to their homes safely. Yemen's politicians dragged the nation to chaos and fragmentation, whereas its football players have brought laughter and pleasure to the people.

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Centre and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.