Amid Yemen’s brutal conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people, Yemenis have turned to their longstanding love of football to help them cope with the devastation, violence and humanitarian crisis plaguing their country haunt.
Through unofficial soccer tournaments held in various villages and towns, Yemeni boys and men come together to try to live a vague semblance of normal existence.
On makeshift soccer fields covered only with sand and stones, amateur players show off their skills to a cheering crowd that comes in their hundreds from near and far.
There are no seats. The spectators, between 800 and 1,500, usually stand on their feet for the duration of the games, shouting and singing to cheer on their team and players.
Like many aspects of life in Yemen, the official football scene came to a standstill as a result of the war that broke out in 2014.
In the political vacuum that followed the ousting of the country’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Iran-backed Houthi group sought power over Yemen, seizing the country’s capital, Sanaa, and eventually ousting those held by the United Nations-recognized government and then-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had the support of Saudi Arabia and other regional actors.
Almost 60 percent of the 370,000 deaths since the conflict broke out are due to hunger, a lack of health care and contaminated water, as the country’s infrastructure suffers immensely.
Nearly 25 million Yemenis remain in need of assistance, five million are at risk of famine and more than a million are affected by a cholera outbreak.
Faced with the dire situation, many Yemenis turned to football for solace and not only took part in unofficial tournaments but also took up street football.
According to Sami al-Handhali, a football commentator and former player of the al-Ahly Taiz football team, sports infrastructure has been badly destroyed, with stadiums and sports centers being targeted for attacks or converted into military bases.
While official football leagues resumed in September last year, funds to support sports clubs and athletes remain tight, he added.
“Yemenis have organized their own events on makeshift football pitches, which got the crowd excited again, helping them deal with their hardship and leading to them spotting new talent who was then picked up by both club side and national team . ‘ al-Handhali told Al Jazeera.
“These games and tournaments also help deter many young men from engaging in the violence as they strengthen the bond between players and spectators from different regions and tribes.”
“Alliance with Yemenis”
While these games strengthen a sense of belonging to a village or province, feelings of national unity are also at play, despite years of division and two local governments.
The audience often broke out in chants for Yemen, calling for a united and peaceful home for all.
For Ramzy Mosa’d, 25, these soccer tournaments are an opportunity to network with fellow Yemenis in ways he’s not used to.
A member of the country’s Muhamasheen – a black minority historically marginalized – he lives in the slums of Jibla, a town in southwest Yemen, on the outskirts of Ibb.
Here, the Muhamasheen are far from other Yemenis, crammed into straw or cardboard houses in areas that lack basic health care, clean water, sanitation, or reliable electricity.
When the Muhamasheen “Elnaseem” football team was invited to a tournament in Assayani district and played alongside other teams from Ibb, “our hearts were warmed,” Mosa’d said.
“The involvement of Assayani residents in our games has been priceless,” Mosa’d told Al Jazeera.
“We were overwhelmed and filled with joy and happiness as we watched the crowd applaud us as if we were locals,” added Mosa’d, whose team eventually won the tournament earlier this year.
Shunned by society due to a centuries-old social hierarchy in which the Muhamasheen are imprisoned as the lowest of their ranks, Mosa’d said that being invited to participate in the tournament “was well appreciated and we wanted to show others that we are also have talented footballers and would like to fit into our society.”
This particular tournament has been held in the Houthi-controlled region every winter since 2017, according to Motee’ Dammaj, one of the organizers and funders of the Assayani tournament.
Invitations are sent out to up to 16 teams from the villages of Assayani and Jibla, and the “zeal to organize such events springs from the Yemenis’ love for the sport and a desire to bring life to many war-torn Yemenis, while strengthening the social bond between them,” Dammaj said.
However, the number of participants depends on the specific situation in the country, he added.
“Every year there is a great turnout and participation from players and spectators and the atmosphere is always good. Despite the acute fuel shortages that made it challenging for many to attend the Games, eight teams were still able to participate in the tournament,” he said, hailing the Muhamasheen’s presence at the Games, which was “important in breaking the cycle of discrimination minority has been exposed to for many years”.
From street football to the national team
In 2017, Hamza Mahrous, then 13, was among hundreds of thousands fleeing escalating violence in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. He settled with his family in Taiz, which has seen its own clashes and violence and has been blocked by Houthi forces since 2015.
Having lived most of his life in a rural setting, Mahrous developed a deep love for football from an early age. Before his expulsion, he won several awards for his skills as a footballer, playing as a forward for both his school team and a local club.
In Taiz, he played in unofficial tournaments held in the war-torn streets of the al-Masbah neighborhood where he lived.
He was quickly hired by several local teams including Talee ‘Taiz football club and Ahly Taiz with whom he won the Balqees tournament.
In 2019, he was spotted by a group of scouts looking for players for the Yemen national team and was invited to join the U15 squad.
“Joining the national team was a dream I never thought would come true, especially given my refugee circumstances and the difficult times we’ve been through,” Mahrous told Al Jazeera.
“But through perseverance and practice, on the streets and football fields and with the support of my parents, it happened.”
In December 2021, Mahrous and his teammates gave the Yemenis a rare taste of celebration and national pride as they won the West Asian Junior Soccer Championship, beating Saudi Arabia on penalties in the final.
Yemenis flooded the streets to celebrate, some firing their guns in the air and briefly celebrating with a sense of pride and unity.
“I felt part of creating the happiness that millions of Yemenis so desperately craved and needed, which was only possible through football – a game they all loved dearly,” Mahrous said.
“The Way to Accept My Lost Dreams”
Saad Murad, 30, said he missed an opportunity to further his football career because of the war.
After more than a decade building his portfolio as a footballer, from playing at school tournaments in his hometown of Damt to playing in Yemen’s Premier League for sports club Dhu Reidan, Murad looked ready for the national team.
But when the league and all official sporting activities were suspended, Murad’s career hit a major roadblock. He said the only connection he has to his past life is the unofficial tournaments that take place during the winter.
“These local tournaments have given me comfort, respite and an opportunity to accept my lost dreams,” said Murad, who is unable to get a job given the country’s poor economy.
With the participation of 32 official football clubs as well as national team players, the tournament that took place in Damt last winter was one of the biggest football events that have taken 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 funding and donations with the support of businessmen and business enterprises and Yemenis abroad.
“The winning team this year won a prize of about 500,000 Yemeni riyals (US$2,000) and the runner-up received 300,000 Yemeni riyals (US$1,200),” al-Hajri said.
Such amounts are significant in a country where the local currency has suffered immense losses from the conflict.
As jobs are lost and salaries suspended, millions struggle to survive, and the situation is made worse by a fuel shortage that has pushed up inflation.
Mahioub al-Marisi, 50, an official who attended most of this year’s tournament matches with his children, was amazed at the sheer number of people who came from far-flung areas, often on foot.
“The football pitches were sandy but the passionate crowd flooded the surrounding spaces and spilled onto the fields to catch a glimpse of the games. People were just amazed and excited to be there. It restored part of the spirit of Yemenis,” he said.
Away from these tournaments, 22-year-old Jameel Nasher goes almost daily to an open pitch near his home on Taiz Road, Ibb, where he meets up with other football lovers later in the afternoon for a game of football, which hits the night well.
Nasher wears Mohamed Salah’s Liverpool number 11 shirt to show his love for the player and forms a team of eight.
There is a lot of hustle and bustle on the field, every player wears the jersey of a club he supports.
“Our love of football and playing on the streets is what remains unchanged in our war-torn lives. We grew up playing the game and it’s reassuring to know it wasn’t taken from us,” he said.