As more than 370,000 people have been killed in the brutal conflict in Yemen, the people of Yemen have turned to their long-standing love of football to help their country cope with the devastation, violence and humanitarian crisis.
Through unofficial football tournaments held in different villages and towns, Yemeni children and men are coming together to try to survive the vague symbol of normal existence.
On a makeshift football field covered with sand and rocks, amateur players demonstrate their skills in front of hundreds of happy spectators from near and far.
No seats. Crowds of 800 to 1,500 usually stand on their feet during matches, shouting and singing to encourage their team and players.
Like many aspects of life in Yemen, the official football scene stalled as a result of the war that began in 2014.
In the political vacuum created by the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iran-backed Huthi faction sought to seize power in Yemen, seize the country’s capital Sanaa, and eventually oust the UN-recognized government and its then-President Abd. -Rabbu Mansoor Hadi, who had the support of Saudi Arabia and other regional players.
About 60 per cent of the 370,000 deaths since the conflict began are due to hunger, lack of health care and unsafe water, which has hit the country’s infrastructure hard.
Nearly 25 million Yemenis are in need of help, five million are at risk of starvation and more than a million have been affected by cholera outbreaks.
In the face of dire circumstances, many Yemenis turned to football for consolation, not only participating in unofficial competitions but also playing street football.
According to Sami Al-Handhali, a football commentator and former member of the Al-Ahly Taiz football team, sports infrastructure was largely destroyed, stadiums and sports centers were attacked or converted into military bases.
When the official football league reopened in September last year, there was a lack of funding to support sports clubs and athletes, he added.
“The Yemeni people have organized their own events on temporary football pitches, which brought back the excitement in the crowd and helped them cope with their plight as well as discover new talents who were later selected by the club as well as the national team,” Al-Handhali told Al Jazeera.
“These matches and tournaments help prevent many youngsters from getting involved in violence as it strengthens the bonds between players and spectators from different regions and tribes.”
‘Relations with the Yemeni people’
While these matches create a sense of belonging to a village or a province, there is also a sense of national unity, despite years of division and two local governments.
The audience often chanted mantras for Yemen and made a harmonious and peaceful home for all.
For Ramzy Mosa’d, 25, this football tournament is an opportunity to connect with other Yemenis in a way he is not used to.
Being a member of the country’s Muhammashin – a black minority group that has historically been neglected – is confined to the Jibla slums in southwestern Yemen, outside the Ibb.
Here, the Muhamshin are far away from other Yemenis, in areas where itchy or cardboard houses lack basic services such as health care, clean water, sanitation or reliable electricity.
So, for the Muhamshin football team, “Elansim” was invited to a tournament in Asayani district and “warmed our hearts” to play with other Ibb’s teams, according to Mossad.
“The participation of Asyani residents in our games was invaluable,” Mossad told Al Jazeera.
“We were overwhelmed and overjoyed to see people from the area compliment us,” said Mossad, whose team won the tournament earlier this year.
Mossad said the invitation to participate in the tournament was “very gratifying and we want to show others that we, as well, are talented footballers and are eager to integrate into our society.”
According to Mote ‘Dammaj, one of the organizers and sponsors of the Asayani competition, the special event has been held in the Huthi-controlled region every winter since 2017.
Invitations have been sent to as many as 16 teams from Asayani and Jibla villages, and “the curiosity to organize such events stems from the Yemeni people’s love of the sport and the desire to breathe life into many war-torn Yemenis. Social bonds between them, “said Dammaj.
However, the participation figures depend on the situation in the country at that time, he added.
“Every year, there is a huge turnout and the participation of players and spectators and the enthusiasm is always high. Despite severe fuel shortages, many were challenged to participate in the Games, but eight teams were able to participate in the tournament, “he said. Minorities have been struggling for years.
From street football to the national team
In 2017, Hamza Mahrous, 13, was among hundreds of thousands who fled the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah to escape the escalating violence. He settled in Taiz with his family, who experienced his own struggles and violence, and has been blockaded by Houthi forces since 2015.
After living in a rural area for most of his life, Mahras developed a deep love for football at an early age. Prior to his departure, he won several awards for his skills as a footballer, playing as a striker for his school team as well as for a local club.
In Taiz, he played in unofficial competitions on the war-torn streets of the al-Masbah neighborhood where he lives.
He was quickly caught by several local teams, including the Tali ‘Taiz Football Club and Ahli Taiz, with whom he won the Balkis tournament.
In 2019, he was spotted by a group of scouts in search of players to join the Yemeni national team and was invited to join the Under-15 team.
“Joining the national team was a dream that I never thought would come true, especially given my displacement and the difficult times we’ve been through,” Mahras told Al Jazeera.
“But with perseverance and practice, on the streets and on the football field, and with the support of my parents, it happened.”
In December 2021, Mahrous and his colleagues gave the Yemeni people a rare taste of joy and national pride when they won the West Asian Junior Football Championship and beat Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final.
The Yemeni people flooded the streets during the festivities, some waving their weapons in the air, celebrating for a while with a sense of pride and unity.
“I felt that part of the joy and need for millions of Yemenis was created through football – they loved the game,” said Mahras.
‘The Way to Accept My Lost Dreams’
Saad Murad, 30, said the war had deprived him of the opportunity to advance in his football career.
After building his portfolio as a footballer for more than a decade, from school competitions in his hometown of Damat to playing for Dhu Ridan Sports Club in the Yemeni Premier League, Murad appeared ready for the national team.
But the suspension of the league and all official sports activities was a major setback for Murad’s career. He says his only connection to his past life is through unofficial competitions that take place in the winter.
“These local competitions have given me comfort, consolation and a way to accept my lost dreams,” said Murad, who cannot afford a job in the country’s dire economic situation.
Held at Damat last winter with the participation of 32 official football clubs as well as national team players, the tournament was one of the largest in the country in seven years.
According to Moammar al-Hazari, a member of the organizing committee in Damat, the competition has been held annually since 2018 through independent funds and donations, with the support of traders and business organizations, as well as the Yemeni people abroad.
“This year, the winning team received about 500,000 Yemeni riyals ($ 2,000) and the runners-up 300,000 Yemeni riyals ($ 1,200),” al-Hazari said.
In a country where the local currency has been hit hard as a result of the conflict, the amount is significant.
With jobs gone and salaries suspended, millions are struggling to survive, and fuel shortages have pushed up inflation.
Mahiub al-Marisi, 50, a civil servant who attended most of this year’s tournament with his children, was surprised to see the number of people often walking from afar.
“Even though the football pitches were sandy, enthusiastic spectators filled the surrounding space and flocked to the fields to catch a glimpse of the games. People were just excited and excited to get there. It restored a part of Yemen’s spirit, “he said.
Away from these tournaments, and almost daily, 22-year-old Jamil Nasher walks to an open space near his home on Taiz Road in Ibb, where he meets other football lovers in the afternoon and plays football. Night
Mohammed Salah’s love for the player is evident by wearing the number 11 Liverpool jersey, with Nasser forming a team of eight players.
On the field, every player wearing the jersey of the supporting club is a splash of color.
“Our love for football and our way of playing on the streets is unchanging in our war-torn lives. We grew up playing this game and it is reassuring to know that it has not been taken away from us, ”he said.