Yemen's Miracle Sojourn to the 2019 Asian Cup

Updated on June 27, 2020
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Fans inside Suheim bin Hamad Stadium  in Doha, Qatar celebrate during a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier between Yemen and Nepal on Mar. 27, 2018. Yemen won the match 2-1 to secure its first Asian Cup as a unified nation.
Fans inside Suheim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar celebrate during a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier between Yemen and Nepal on Mar. 27, 2018. Yemen won the match 2-1 to secure its first Asian Cup as a unified nation. | Source

Throughout history, some footballing nations that have undergone turmoil often struggled to achieve the results needed to lift their societies. However, history has also proven to allow exceptions to the rule. In 2009, Honduras gained the results it needed to reach its first World Cup after a 28-year absence. In 2011, three nations qualified for the Africa Cup of nations amidst political turmoil.

In 2019, one west Asian nation accomplished its journey. For many decades, Yemen lived in the shadows of other West Asian nations. Since Yemen's unification in 1990, football was supposed to represent a way to help the country strife with war and other instability. Woefully, the process and currents events denied Yemen opportunities for growth. The country has no domestic league since 2014, and many of its players had to undertake second jobs.

However, with Asia's expansion of its continental tournament, Yemen benefited from overcoming all odds in the unlikeliest fashion. A campaign that started miserably culminated with a qualification berth for the 2019 Asian Cup. Not bad for a nation that had last played a home game in December 2010.

Commentator's Note

According to FIFA, Yemen is the successor of North Yemen, who never played an Asian Cup. Before the 1990 unification, South Yemen played at the 1976 Asian Cup.

Althawra Sports City Stadium in Sana'a, Yemen hosted many matches, including a notable 2-1 upset during a 2002 World Cup qualifying. On Sept. 13, 2016, the stadium suffered extensive damage during a Saudi Arabia-led air strike.
Althawra Sports City Stadium in Sana'a, Yemen hosted many matches, including a notable 2-1 upset during a 2002 World Cup qualifying. On Sept. 13, 2016, the stadium suffered extensive damage during a Saudi Arabia-led air strike. | Source

So Close to History

Sept. 8, 1990, marked Yemen's first match since reunification, a 1-0 victory against Malaysia in a rare international friendly. In 1993, Yemen embarked on its 1994 World Cup qualification campaign with eight games split between Jordan's Al-Hassan Stadium in Irbid and China's Chengdu Sports Center. Though it missed out on the tournament, Yemen achieved its first memorable result Irbid on May 28, 1993 - Saleh Rabiah Ben scoring the lone goal to defeat China in that match. Yemen also defeated Pakistan twice during this qualification phase.

Nonetheless, Yemen struggled against Asia's elite nations over several campaigns. On Jan. 26, 1996, Yemen played its first Asian Cup qualifier in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - a 1-0 victory against Kyrgyzstan in which Sharaf Mahfood scored the winning goal 57 minutes into the game. It would be Yemen's lone victory in that qualification campaign; two days later, Yemen lost 4-0 to Saudi Arabia, and in the end, Yemen missed out. In the following year, Yemen played six 1998 World Cup qualifiers. A second-place finish was what Yemen attained as it finished ahead of Indonesia and Cambodia, the latter in which Al Ariki scored four goals on May 17, 1997, at Althawra Sports City Stadium in Sana'a. Yemen concluded its campaign against group winners Uzbekistan with a stunning loss - a 5-1 loss in Tashkent.

Another third-place finish followed during Yemen's 2000 Asian Cup qualification campaign. Along with narrow losses to Kuwait and Turkmenistan, Yemen defeated Nepal and Bhutan, the latter doing so by a score of 11-2 on Feb. 18, 2000. During that match, Ali Al-Nono scored a hat trick, and three other plays notched a pair of goals. That blowout victory set the stage for Yemen's first legitimate chance at making history in 2001, the year that saw Yemen play six 2002 World Cup qualifiers in two months. Yemen would face Brunei, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Many expected the United Arab Emirates to get out of the group comfortably.

Yemen began qualifying with a 5-0 victory against Brunei, with Al-Nono scoring twice. Following that match, India upset the United Arab Emirates 1-0. Throughout qualifying, Yemen hung with India and the United Arab Emirates as it recorded another victory against Brunei, along with two draws against India. The second of those two draws came at the Althawra Sports City Stadium in Sana'a, where Adel Ali Al-Salimi scored a hat trick. These results provided Yemen a shot to reach the subsequent qualifying phase.

Saeed Al-Kass put the United Arab Emirates up at halftime. Al Gurbani tied the match before Al-Nono's 73rd-minute goal put Yemen on the cusp of history. However, despite hanging tight with the United Arab Emirates, Yemen missed out on the following stage with the 3-2 loss. It was the closest Yemen got into reaching a significant tournament.

Goals from 2001

2002 FIFA World Cup qualification – AFC First Round Group 8

 
W
D
L
GF
GA
United Arab Emirates
4
0
2
21
5
Yemen
3
2
1
14
8
India
3
2
1
11
5
Brunei
0
0
6
0
28
United Arab Emirates qualified for the next phase of the World Cup qualification. Yemen finished ahead of India on goal scored tiebreaker.

Before the Ebb

When it returned after a two-year absence from a significant qualifying campaign, Yemen played all six 2004 Asian Cup qualifiers in October 2003 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That journey began with Yemen losing 7-0 to Saudi Arabia, having allowed Yusri Al Basha to score four goals in the opening 35 minutes. In that qualification campaign, Yemen scored 15 goals, with 12 coming against Bhutan. Yasser Basuhai scored three of his four goals in that campaign in an 8-0 victory over Bhutan on Oct. 10, 2003. However, Yemen only managed the two wins against Bhutan. In the end, a draw and a loss to Indonesia prevented Yemen from reaching the 2004 Asian Cup.

Following that elimination, Yemen began its qualification campaign to reach the 2006 World Cup. During this qualification campaign, Yemen had pulled off another notable result against the United Arab Emirates. Just over three years after scoring the winning goal against these same opponents, Al Nono scored twice on Sept. 8, 2004, as Yemen won 3-1. While the result dented the United Arab Emirates' chances, Yemen finished the group last. Yemen lost three qualifiers, and in the two draws had a lead, including its final qualifier in which Thailand scored a 95th-minute goal.

Mixed results would be another theme in Yemen's next qualification campaign - that in reaching the 2007 Asian Cup. During qualification, Yemen notched two victories over India, including a 2-1 win in Sana'a to cap off its qualification campaign. Yemen even hung in with Japan in both matches, including holding Japan scoreless through 70 minutes in Niigata, Japan. However, Yemen lost both games, the second coming via a stoppage-time goal. With two more losses to Saudi Arabia, Yemen once again missed out on the Asian Cup.

What followed would be a profound decline that saw Yemen sink.

Mohamad Al-Boqsan (#10) chases for a ball with United Arab Emirates during the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship group stage match on Jan. 13, 2014 in Muscat, Oman. Boqsan would go on to be one of 23 players on Yemen's Asian Cup squad.
Mohamad Al-Boqsan (#10) chases for a ball with United Arab Emirates during the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship group stage match on Jan. 13, 2014 in Muscat, Oman. Boqsan would go on to be one of 23 players on Yemen's Asian Cup squad. | Source

No Home as the Nation Declines

Four straight qualifying campaigns saw no progress for Yemen. Between 2011 and 2014, Yemen won only two of 31 games and, in that period, lost 17 consecutive international matches. That streak included all three games each during the 2012 WAFF Championship in Kuwait (WAFF: West Asian Football Federation) and the 2013 Gulf Cup in Bahrain. The tail end of this losing streak saw Yemen lose all six of its 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers.

Not only did the nation struggle in qualifying, but Yemen even struggled in its sub-confederation. In contrast to other countries with smaller populations, Yemen seldom had resources to overcome those struggles, even when its youth squad was at its peak in 2002 by reaching the 2002 AFC U-16 Championship. That run sent Yemen to the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland, where goalkeeper Mohamed Ayash started all three games during that tournament. Though it finished last in its group, Yemen competed against teams whose future stars went on to success. That included Portugal's João Moutinho and Hugo Marques (a member of Angola's 2012 Africa Cup of Nations squad), as well as Cameroon's Stephane Mbia.

No indicator revealed Yemen's flaws more than their participation at the Arabian Gulf Cup, a biennial competition that features the other seven Arabian Gulf nations. Yemen started playing in this tournament beginning in 2003, In its seven appearances at this tournament, Yemen never won a game and only avoided defeated five of its 27 games. Also, Yemen's last goal in this tournament came in 2010. Akram Al-Worafi scored the opening goal against Qatar in Zinjibar's Al-Wihda Stadium. The 2010 Gulf Cup would be one of the last times Yemen host games altogether. On Jan. 27, 2011, 16,000 protestors marched on the streets of Sana'a in what would start the Yemeni revolution. With the civil unrest, FIFA moved Yemen's home match against Iraq on July 28, 2011, to Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.

Later to be a venue at the 2019 Asian Cup, Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium would be one of many sites Yemen played its "home" matches. The 2011 Yemeni Revolution would not be the only major event for Yemen. In 2014, Ansar Allah led a coup that led to the fall of Sana'a. Six months after that coup, Operation Special Storm began as the Saudi Arabia-led intervention, which included the bombing of Sana'a. One notable building destroyed during this intervention was Althawra Sports City Stadium. Yemen would have no home to play its soccer matches, and all seemed hopeless as on Feb. 13, 2014, Yemen sank to 186th in the FIFA Rankings.

Abdulmuain Al-Jarshi (#5) and Ahmed Al-Sarori (#21) chase Uzbekistan's Sardor Rashidovb (#10) during a qualifier against Uzbekistan at Pakhator Central Stadium in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on Sept. 3, 2015.
Abdulmuain Al-Jarshi (#5) and Ahmed Al-Sarori (#21) chase Uzbekistan's Sardor Rashidovb (#10) during a qualifier against Uzbekistan at Pakhator Central Stadium in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on Sept. 3, 2015. | Source

The Marathon Begins

When FIFA announced the draw on Feb. 10, 2015, Yemen was in civil war. The Houthi takeover had captured Yemen's capital Sana'a. Due to the coup d'etat, Yemen played its home match against Pakistan on Mar. 13, 2015 in Doha, Qatar. Yemen started well, with Abdulwasea Al-Matari scoring three minutes into the game. Mohammed Boqshan doubled Yemen's lead before Pakistan. Yemen won the first leg 3-1 and hoped to extend that advantage on Mar. 17, 2015, in Lahore, Pakistan.

Yet, two days before the scheduled match, two bombs struck churches in Lahore's Youhanabad area that killed 15 people. Due to this, the second leg occurred in Isa Town, Bahrain, which saw Yemen finish with a scoreless draw to send them to the second round. There, Yemen played its matches away, including its four home matches in Doha, Qatar. That included Yemen having its 1-0 opening loss changed to a 3-0 forfeited loss due to fielding an ineligible player.

Only one player scored a goal during the second round as Ahmed Abdulhakim Ahmed Al-Sarori scored both of Yemen's goals in the eight matches. His first goal proved to be the difference against the Philippines in a road victory in Manila on Nov. 12, 2015. Six days later, Al-Sarori provided a consolation goal against Uzbekistan. In the end, Yemen's last-place finish came due to a 3-0 loss in Riffa, Bahrain, and the nation needed a two-legged playoff to reach another round of Asian Cup qualifying in June 2016.

Yemen now needed the manager to stay in contention.

A Yemeni palyer (white and a Nepali player (red) battle for possession of the ball during a 2019 Asian Cup third round qualifier on June 2017 at Halchowk Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal.
A Yemeni palyer (white and a Nepali player (red) battle for possession of the ball during a 2019 Asian Cup third round qualifier on June 2017 at Halchowk Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal. | Source

Summoning the Youth

Across the decades, many coaches had opportunities to guide Yemen to respect - that including three notables: Algeria's Rabah Saâdane, Serbia's Vladimir Petrović, and the Czech Republic's Miroslav Soukup. However, it was Abraham Mebratu that helped spot talent in Yemen. The Ethiopian manager oversaw Yemen's successful qualification to the inaugural AFC U-22 Championship.

Two wins against Nepal and Bangladesh, coupled with a 1-1 draw against Uzbekistan, allowed Yemen to play in the group stage in Oman. There, Yemen proceeded to lose all three games. Nevertheless, it was in this tournament, as well as Yemen's participation in the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship, that saw the crux of a new generation of players that would represent Yemen on the senior level.

These squads featured defender Mudir Al-Radaei and midfielder Mohammed Al-Sarori, both players at Al-Ahli Club Sana'a. Having debuted during the 2012 WAFF Championship, defender Mohamad Boqshan of Aden's Al-Tilal would be one of the three goals against Pakistan in March 2015. Aiman Al-Hagri was Yemen's notable player that played abroad, having played for Bahrain's Al-Riffa.

Al-Hagri would also help Yemen get on track against the Maldives. It would be the opponent Yemen would have to face to reach the Asian Cup third qualifying round, and the manager would be Mebratu. Al-Hagri and Al-Matari scored both of Yemen's goals in the first leg. Yemen matched its 2-0 first-leg victory with another result and had a second chance at reaching the Asian Cup.

Six matches stood between Yemen and history. Yemen found itself having to play the Philippines, Tajikistan, and Nepal also in the group. Two debutantes will have qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup, and many experts believed the Philippines and Tajikistan would play at the Asian Cup.

In Yemen's opening third round qualifier, Tajikistan took the lead after nine minutes, with Parvizdzhon Umarbayev scoring the opening goal. Yemen hoped for a breakthrough and before halftime received a gift courtesy of an own goal. The 1-1 would have been a positive start, but Ali Al-Sasi scored to give Yemen a shocking victory. Yemen hoped to continue the winning ways against Nepal, its opponent having returned after Guam withdrew from the tournament.

History at Doha

Getting the Right Results and a Hopeful Future

Yemen suffered a scoreless draw against Nepal in Kathmandu. Ahead of the third qualifier, Yemen hoped for another victory in the Philippines. Al-Radaei's 27th-minute goal put Yemen ahead, only for Phil Younghusband to tie the match three minutes later. In the second half, Al-Matari restored Yemen's lead, only for James Younghusband, Phil's brother, to tie the game. The 2-2 draw in Bacolod seemed to have been vital as the rematch took place in Al Wakrah, Qatar.

Emad Mansoor scored his first goal for Yemen in the 63rd minute, and another famous victory seemed likely. However, Mike Ott's late goal salvaged a point for the Philippines. With Tajikistan having gained ground courtesy of two wins against Nepal, Yemen could not afford a slip-up against Tajikistan ahead of its road game in Hisor. However, with a goalless draw, Yemen left the Hisor Stadium with the vital result and control of its destiny in its match against Nepal.

As long as it matched or bettered Tajikistan's result against the Philippines, Yemen would qualify for the Asian Cup. The nation would stand to be on the cusp thanks to Al-Matari's opening goal 24 minutes into the game. However, right before halftime, Nepal's Nawayug Shresthaed tied the match. At one point, Yemen was in danger of being eliminated after Tajikistan took the lead in Manila. However, Al-Matari became Yemen's hero, with his 84th-minute goal enough to send Yemen to the 2019 Asian Cup.

A nation without a home and a league celebrated. Mebratu masterminded Yemen's historic achievement to the Asian Cup but would not take part. Instead, Mebratu agreed to manage his native Ethiopia in July 2018. Yemen eventually hired Jan Kocian, a manager whose resume included a stint in his native Slovakia during Euro 2008 qualification. Kocian would guide Yemen during the tournament, but with little preparation with the players that helped Yemen throughout qualification.

Yemen had few favorable opportunities during the tournament. Against IR Iran, Al-Sarori nearly handed his nation a shock lead; in that same game, Al-Radaei almost got Yemen its first Asian Cup goal. Al-Matari missed a potential tying goal early against Iraq, while Al-Sarori missed another scoring opportunity against Vietnam. In the end, three games for Yemen scored goals and lost all three games.

Despite this disappointment, Yemen provided an opportunity for cheering; later in 2019, Yemen won a group stage game in the WAFF Championship, when goals from Mansoor and Al-Matari gave Yemen a 2-1 victory. That tournament proved to be the end of Kocian's stint as Sami Al Nash returned for a fourth stint as Yemen's manager. That came as Yemen commenced its 2022 FIFA World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.

Since the tournament, Yemen's notable result was a 2-2 draw against Saudi Arabia in Riffa, Bahrain. On Nov. 14, 2019, Abdullah Al-Dahi's lone goal in Muharraq, Bahrain, helped Yemen defeat Palestine. Wherever the journey and whatever the struggle, Yemen is hoping for another miracle sojourn come possibly 2022 and hopefully 2023 in a country that needs something to cheer.

Yemen's staring lineup ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup group stage match against Iraq in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Captaining Yemen at this tournament was Alaa Al-Sasi (#9), Yemen all-time cap leader with 87.
Yemen's staring lineup ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup group stage match against Iraq in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Captaining Yemen at this tournament was Alaa Al-Sasi (#9), Yemen all-time cap leader with 87. | Source

The Qualification Marathon

Date
Opponent
Score
City: Stadium
Mar. 12, 2015
Pakistan (H)
3-1 Yemen
Doha: Grand Hamad Stadium
Mar. 23, 2015
Pakistan (A)
0-0
Isa Town: Khalifa City Sports Stadium
June 11, 2015
North Korea (H)
3-0 North Korea (AWD)
Doha: Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium
June 16, 2015
Philippines (H)
2-0 Philippines
Doha: Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium
Sept. 3, 2015
Uzbekistan (A)
1-0 Uzbekistan
Tashkent: Pakhtakor Central Stadium
Sept. 8, 2015
Bahrain (H)
1-0 Bahrain
Doha: Grand Hamad Stadium
Oct. 13, 2015
North Korea (A)
1-0 North Korea
Pyongyang: Kim Il-sung Stadium
Nov. 12, 2015
Philippines (A)
1-0 Yemen
Manila: Rizal Memorial Stadium
Nov. 17, 2015
Uzbekistan (H)
3-1 Uzkbeistan
Doha: Grand Hamad Stadium
Mar. 24, 2016
Bahrain (A)
4-0 Bahrain
Riffa: Bahrain National Stadium
June 2, 2016
Maldives (A)
2-0 Yemen
Male: National Football Stadium
June 7, 2016
Maldives (H)
2-0 Yemen
Doha: Grand Hamad Stadium
Mar. 28, 2017
Tajikistan (H)
2-1 Yemen
Doha: Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium
June 13, 2017
Nepal (A)
0-0
Kathmandu: Halchowk Stadium
Sept. 5, 2017
Philippines (A)
2-2
Bacolod: Panaad Park and Stadium
Oct. 10, 2017
Philippines (H)
1-1
Al-Wakrah: Saoud bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani Stadium
Nov. 14, 2017
Tajikistan (A)
0-0
Hisor: Hisor Central Stadium
Mar. 27, 2018
Nepal (H)
2-1 Yemen
Doha: Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium
Yemen played all home matches in Qatar and its away game to Pakistan in Bahrain. June 11, 2015, initially finished North Korea winning 1-0 before FIFA awarded the 3-0 victory on July 6, 2015, due to Yemen fielding an ineligible player.

© 2019 Antonio Martinez

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