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Yemen's Miracle Sojourn to the 2019 Asian Cup

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

In Doha, Qatar, fans inside Suheim bin Hamad Stadium 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.

In Doha, Qatar, fans inside Suheim bin Hamad Stadium 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.

Often do countries undergoing turmoil struggle to achieves the successes needed to inspire its citizens. However, history has also proven to allow exceptions to the rule.

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 further 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.

With Asia's expansion of its continental tournament, Yemen benefited as it qualified 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.

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 airstrike.

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 airstrike.

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 in Irbid on May 28, 1993 - Saleh Rabiah Ben scoring the lone goal to defeat China in that match.

Yemen's first Asian Cup qualifier came on Jan. 26, 1996, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - a 1-0 victory against Kyrgyzstan in which Sharaf Mahfood scored the winning goal 57 minutes into the game. It became Yemen's lone victory during qualifying; two days later, Yemen lost 4-0 to Saudi Arabia and suffered elimination from qualifying. In the following year, Yemen played six 1998 World Cup qualifiers and finished second. The notable victory came against Cambodia on May 17, 1997, when Al Ariki scored four goals at Althawra Sports City Stadium in Sana'a. The qualifying campaign ended disappointingly - a 5-1 loss to the group winners Uzbekistan 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. That was the year Yemen played six 2002 World Cup qualifiers in two months, with its opponents 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 suffered elimination with the 3-2 loss. It was the closest Yemen got to reaching a significant tournament.

Goals from 2001

2002 FIFA World Cup qualification – AFC First Round Group 8

United Arab Emirates qualified for the next phase of the World Cup qualification. Yemen finished ahead of India on goal scored tiebreaker.

 WDLGFGA

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

Before the Ebb

After a two-year absence from a major 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, allowing Yusri Al Basha to score four goals in the opening 35 minutes. The qualification campaign saw 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. Yemen only managed the two wins against Bhutan, as 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 became another theme in Yemen's 2007 Asian Cup qualification campaign. Aside from two victories against India, Yemen even managed to hold reigning continental champions Japan scoreless with 20 minutes remaining away in Niigata. However, Yemen lost both games with Japan and Saudi Arabia and missed out on qualification.

Soon afterward, a profound decline 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.

No Home as the Nation Declines

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 and all six of its 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers.

To make matters worse, Yemen struggled within its sub-confederation. In contrast to other countries with smaller populations, Yemen seldom had resources to overcome those struggles, even when its youth squad played at the 2002 AFC U-16 Championship. That run sent Yemen to the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland, with that team feating starting goalkeeper Mohamed Ayash. 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) and 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 a venue at the 2019 Asian Cup, Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium was 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 Sana'a's bombing. One notable building destroyed during this intervention was Althawra Sports City Stadium. Yemen had no home to play its matches, and on Feb. 13, 2014, 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.

The Marathon Begins

When FIFA announced the draw on Feb. 10, 2015, Yemen was in a civil war. The Houthi takeover saw the capture of 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.

Two days before the scheduled match, two bombs struck churches in Lahore's Youhanabad area that killed 15 people. 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 in defeating the Philippines at 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 needed the manager to stay in contention.

A Yemeni player (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 player (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.

Summon the Youth

Across the decades, many coaches had opportunities to guide Yemen to respect, including 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, held in Oman. Despite Yemen losing all three games, the tournament and Yemen's participation in the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship saw the crux of a new generation of players.
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 score 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 helped Yemen get on track against the Maldives, whom Yemen would have to face to reach the Asian Cup third qualifying round. 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. With the Philippines, Tajikistan, and Nepal in the group, two debutantes will have qualified for the 2019 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

The Right Results and the Hopeful Future

Yemen managed 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 proved vital ahead of the rematch in Al Wakrah, Qatar.

Emad Mansoor scored his first goal for Yemen in the 63rd minute, and another famous victory seemed likely. Mike Ott's late goal salvaged a point for the Philippines. With Tajikistan having won twice against Nepal, Yemen could not afford a slip-up against Tajikistan. A goalless draw at the Hisor Stadium put Yemen in control of its destiny.

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 sent Yemen to the 2019 Asian Cup.

A nation without a home 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 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. As 2019 continued, Yemen won a group stage game during the WAFF Championship, which proved to be the end of Kocian's stint. Sami Al Nash returned for a fourth stint as Yemen's manager, which came during the 2022 FIFA World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. 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 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.

The Qualification Marathon

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.

DateOpponentScoreCity: 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

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© 2019 Antonio Martinez