Amid the brutal conflict in Yemen that has killed more than 370,000 people, Yemenis have turned to their long-standing love of football to help them weather the devastation, violence and humanitarian crisis plaguing their country.
Through unofficial soccer tournaments taking place in different towns and cities, Yemeni boys and men have banded together to try to live a vague semblance of a normal existence.
On makeshift soccer fields covered with nothing but sand and rocks, amateur players show off their skills to an enthusiastic audience that comes in the hundreds from near and far.
There are no seats. The crowd, which ranges from 800 to 1,500, is usually on its feet during matches, shouting and singing to cheer on their team and players.
As with many aspects of life in Yemen, the official football scene came to an abrupt halt as a result of the war that broke out in 2014.
In the political vacuum that followed the ouster of the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iranian-backed Houthi group sought power over Yemen, seized the country’s capital, Sanaa, and ultimately ousted the now UN-recognized government. its then president, Abd. -Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had the support of Saudi Arabia and other regional actors.
Nearly 60 percent of the 370,000 deaths since the conflict broke out have been due to hunger, lack of medical care and unsafe water, as the country’s infrastructure suffers greatly.
Nearly 25 million Yemenis still need assistance, five million are at risk of famine, and a cholera outbreak has affected more than a million.
With the dire situation at hand, many Yemenis turned to football for solace, not only taking part in unofficial tournaments, but also playing street football.
According to Sami al-Handhali, a football commentator and former player of the al-Ahly Taiz football team, sports infrastructure suffered extensive destruction, with stadiums and sports centers targeted or converted into military bases.
While official soccer leagues resumed in September last year, funds to support sports clubs and athletes remain scarce, he added.
“Yemenis have organized their own events on makeshift soccer fields, which brought back the excitement among the crowd and helped them deal with their difficulties, as well as discover new talents who were later picked up by the club and the national team. . al-Handhali told Al Jazeera.
“These matches and tournament also help prevent many young people from getting involved in violence as it strengthened the bond between the players and the public from different regions and tribes.”
‘Linking with the Yemenis’
While these parties reinforce a sense of belonging to a town or province, feelings of national unity are also at stake despite the divisions of years and two local governments.
The audience used to break into chants for Yemen, calling for a united and peaceful home for all.
For Ramzy Mosa’d, 25, these soccer tournaments are a chance to connect with other Yemenis in a way he’s not used to.
Being a member of the country’s Muhamasheen, a black minority group that has historically been marginalized, he is confined to the slums of Jibla, a city in southwestern Yemen, on the outskirts of Ibb.
Here, the Muhamasheen are far from other Yemenis, crammed into houses made of straw or cardboard, in areas that lack basic health services, clean water, sanitation or reliable electricity.
Therefore, when Muhamasheen’s football team, “Elnaseem”, was invited to a tournament in Assayani district and played alongside other Ibb teams, “we were moved”, according to Mosa’d.
“The participation of Assayani residents in our games is priceless,” Mosa told Al Jazeera.
“We were overwhelmed and full of joy and happiness as we watched the crowd appreciate us as if we were residents of the area,” added Mosa’d, whose team ended up winning that tournament earlier this year.
Being shunned by society as a result of a centuries-old social hierarchy in which muhamasheen are confined to the lowest of their ranks, Mosa said the invitation to join the tournament “was immensely appreciated and we wanted to show others that we are, also, they have talented soccer players and they are eager to integrate into our society”.
This particular tournament has been held every winter since 2017 in the Houthi-controlled region, according to Motee’ Dammaj, one of the Assayani tournament’s organizers and sponsors.
Invitations are sent to up to 16 teams from the villages of Assayani and Jibla and the “enthusiasm to organize these types of events comes from knowing Yemenis love for sport and wanting to breathe life into many war-torn Yemenis at the same time. that strengthens the social bond between them,” said Dammaj.
Participation figures, however, depend on the country’s situation at the time, he added.
“Every year, there is a great attendance and participation from the players and the public, and the spirit is always high. Despite acute fuel shortages that made it a challenge for many to join the games, eight teams managed to participate in the tournament,” he said, hailing Muhamasheen’s presence at the games, which was “important in breaking the cycle of discrimination that this entails. minority has been facing for many years.
From street football to the national team
In 2017, Hamza Mahrous, then 13, was among hundreds of thousands who fled the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, escaping escalating violence. He settled with his family in Taiz, which has experienced its own fighting and violence and has been blockaded by Houthi forces since 2015.
Having lived most of his life in a rural setting, Mahrous developed a deep love for football at a young age. Before his move, he won several awards for his skills as a soccer player, playing as a striker for his school team and a local club.
In Taiz, he played in unofficial tournaments that took place in the war-torn streets of the al-Masbah neighborhood where he lived.
He was quickly signed by several local teams, including Talee’ Taiz football club and Ahly Taiz, with whom he won the Balqees tournament.
In 2019, a group of scouts spotted him looking for players to join the Yemeni national team and invited him to join the under-15 team.
“Joining the national team was a dream that I never thought would come true, especially given my circumstances of displacement and the difficult times we went through,” Mahrous told Al Jazeera.
“But through persistence and practice, on the streets and soccer fields, and with the support of my parents, it happened.”
In December 2021, Mahrous and his teammates gave the Yemenis a rare display of jubilation and national pride when they won the West Asian youth soccer championship, beating Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final.
Yemenis flooded the streets in celebration, some firing their weapons into the air, briefly rejoicing with a sense of pride and unity.
“I felt part of creating the happiness that millions of Yemenis longed for and needed, which was only possible through football, a game that everyone loved,” Mahrous said.
‘The way to accept my lost dreams’
Saad Murad, 30, said he missed out on his chance to pursue his football career because of the war.
After more than a decade of building his portfolio as a footballer, from school tournaments in his hometown of Damt to playing in Yemen’s top league for the Dhu Reidan sports club, Murad seemed ready for the national team.
But when the league and all official sporting activities were suspended, Murad’s career hit a big snag. He said that the only connection he has to his previous life is through the unofficial tournaments that take place in the winter.
“These local tournaments have given me solace, a respite and a way to accept my lost dreams,” said Murad, who is unable to find a job amid the dire economic situation in the country.
With the participation of 32 official football clubs, as well as players from national teams, the tournament organized in Damt last winter was one of the biggest football events to take place in the country in seven years.
According to Moammar al-Hajri, a member of the organizing committee in Damt, this tournament has been held annually since 2018 through independent funds and donations, with the support of businessmen and commercial entities, as well as Yemenis abroad.
“This year’s winning team won prize money of about 500,000 Yemeni riyals ($2,000) and the runners-up received 300,000 Yemeni riyals ($1,200),” al-Hajri said.
Such amounts are significant in a country where the local currency is suffering immense blows as a result of the conflict.
As jobs are lost and wages suspended, millions are struggling to survive, made worse by fuel shortages that have pushed up inflation.
Mahioub al-Marisi, 50, an official who attended most of this year’s tournament matches with his children, was amazed by the large number of people who came from far away, often on foot.
“The football pitches were sand, but the passionate audience flooded the surrounding spaces and spilled into the farm fields to catch a glimpse of the games. People were ecstatic and excited to be there. It restored a part of the spirit of the Yemenis,” she said.
Away from these tournaments, and almost daily, Jameel Nasher, 22, heads to an open space near his home on Taiz road in Ibb, where he meets other football lovers later in the afternoon to play football that it goes well at night.
Wearing Mohamed Salah’s number 11 Liverpool shirt to reflect his love for the player, Nasher assembles an eight-player squad.
On the pitch, there is a flurry of colors with each player wearing a jersey from a club they support.
“Our love for football and for us playing in the streets is what remains unchanged in our war-torn lives. We grew up playing the game and it’s comforting to know that it hasn’t been taken away from us,” he said.