Civil war has been raging in Yemen for over three years, tearing the country apart. Somehow, though, their national team have qualified for the Asian Cup as the nation puts its political differences aside.
The war in Yemen has negatively impacted all aspects of life and sports are no exception. Play in the country's top league has been suspended and despite the fact that they can no longer play their home matches in Yemen, the country's national team have qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup.
To do so, the players agreed to put all of their political differences aside and come together for a common goal. All regions of the country are represented in the squad, with players from the north, which is controlled by the insurgent Houthis, and the south, where the government is based.
"The Yemenis have forgotten the bombs and guns and their worries at this moment," Bashir Sinan, president of the Yemeni University of Sports Media, told DW after Yemen clinched qualification for the Asian Cup. "Darkness and violence have given way for a moment to the celebrations that took place throughout the country. All Yemenis celebrated their team."
Change of location under the sign of politics
The decisive qualifying match was played in Doha, Qatar, which has been the national team's home-away-from-home since the conflict made playing in Yemen impossible. The team has also been training in Qatar during the run-up to this January's Asian Cup.
In November they spent some time training in Riyadh, but according to media reports, when the team tried to return to Doha, they got caught up in the ongoing diplomatic dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which 18 months ago saw the Saudis impose a trade boycott on the small neighboring state. So instead of Qatar, they left Saudi Arabia for Malaysia in mid-December.
However, the young players took this in their stride as they have become used to frequent moves.
"We have also had training camps for the young team in various Arab countries, for example in Egypt and Qatar," Yemen's Minister of Youth and Sport Nayef al-Bakri said in an interview with DW. He also stressed that the team had not been placed under any political pressure. "We train in a normal camp, even if one state happens to be boycotting the other," he said.
However, the President of Yemeni Association for Sports Media, Bashir Sinan, sees things differently.
"The team had planned to return to Doha after the end of the training in Riyadh, but then were prevented from doing so for political reasons. What advantage would there be to having the Yemeni team train in Malaysia?"
Most of the teams who have qualified for the Asian Cup have chosen a training camp on the Arabian Peninsula – not least to get used to the climate, so Sinan found the move to Malaysia surprising.
"The Yemeni team is the first and last victim of political tensions. Of course, this also has an impact on their performance. If you don't want our team to train in Doha, you should provide them with a small camp in Riyadh or another Saudi city.
History and dream
For their part, the Yemeni fans are doing what they can to support their team, and the Yemeni university has launched a campaign with the hashtag: "Yemen the history, Asia the dream."
The idea behind the message is that despite the current war and destruction, Yemen remains a part of the present and of history. And qualifying for the Asian Cup is a dream in and of itself, no matter how Yemen fare in the UAE.
"The aim of the campaign is to generate the greatest possible support for the team," Sinan said.
The hope is that it will help to unite young Yeminis behind the team despite all political tensions and differences.
"We are well aware of the team's potential in this respect," Sport Minister al-Bakri said. "It could bring all the Yemenis behind it, both domestically and abroad.
The team also has a message for the general population and politicians: "Let's keep the guns silent and have a reasonable dialogue and peace in their place".
'Never give up'
One month before the start of the championships, the Asian Football Association, together with the fans, has chosen a slogan for each of the participating teams. The Yemeni team's slogan is "Never give up" - an allusion to the team's determination to hold on to its sporting goals despite all the adversity and to qualify for the championship.
The team now play in Group D, along with Iraq, Iran and Vietnam. The fans know that their team will have a hard time due to the irregular preparations. In addition, the players recently had to cope with a change of coach. At the end of October, former Bundesliga pro Jan Kocian from Slovakia took the place of Ethiopian Ashenafi Bekele.
For the Yemenis, the Asian Cup is a huge challenge. But they are determined to offer their compatriots beautiful games, so that they can once again forget the thoughts of war and death.