When politics effects sports: Yemen’s football clubs suspended

Published on 12 March 2015 in Report
Ali Mohsen Aboluhom (author), Ali Mohsen Aboluhom (photographer)

Ali Mohsen Aboluhom


Ali Mohsen Aboluhom

A match during the 2013 season between Al-Ittihad club from Ibb and Al-Yarmok from Sana’a.

A match during the 2013 season between Al-Ittihad club from Ibb and Al-Yarmok from Sana’a.

It is difficult to imagine the Gulf Cup being hosted by Yemen today, as it was just five years ago. The Yemen Football Association (YFA) has managed to weather trying times since it was founded 15 years ago, but political and economic turmoil in the country is proving too much for the national league today.

The last day of first division football matches in Yemen was Jan. 10, and it has since been decided that games will not resume for at least two months.

On Feb. 1, the Competitions Committee of the Ministry of Youth and Sports suspended all YFA activities. The suspension is planned to last until the end of March, and effects all football clubs playing in Yemen’s first division.

The deputy head of the committee, Ali Abu Al-Rejal, said the decision came following a review of national security and the dwindling resources available to clubs. Government funding has not been provided since the beginning of January and most clubs are no longer able to meet their commitments to players and coaching staff, he said.

While some teams will continue training despite the suspension, many have decided to shut down completely. The president of Al-Tilal Sports Club in Aden, Aref Al-Yarimi, said that since the suspension came into effect on Feb. 1 there is no money to keep the stadium and training facilities open.

All activities were thus suspended at the club—founded in 1905 as the first sports club in the Arabian Peninsula—and the closure applies to the club’s volleyball, weight-lifting, basketball, boxing, and wrestling departments as well.

With little indication that security or the national economy will improve anytime soon, it seems likely the suspension will extend beyond its April deadline. Even if it doesn’t, however, the suspension may have long-term consequences for a league that has always struggled on a regional and international level.

International players live and work in a foreign country that offers little in the way of alternatives for a professional athlete, and many players see little reason to wait it out. In the last two weeks alone, Al-Yarimi says he has lost three players from Nigeria because of the club’s inability to pay them.

First division clubs, representing different governorates around the country, normally receive annual funding of YR10,000,000 ($47,000) from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Al-Yarimi says his club has not received its annual budget and does not have recourse to alternative funding in the form of sponsorships and private donations.

Security concerns have prevented clubs from travelling to play each other in their respective governorates, and many have had to suspend training and matches in their own governorates due to ongoing fighting.

Mohammad Haidan, head of the Football Federation in Aden governorate, says a number of clubs have had to suspend activities in the south because government security and protection around stadiums is not provided for.  

In the southern governorates, Haidan says a number of events have been cancelled because Southern Movement protestors have disrupted matches by cutting off roads leading to the stadiums and preventing spectators and teams from arriving.

For Hussein Madhloum, a 40-year-old Southern Movement supporter, any sporting events that involve both northern and southern athletes are at odds with the spirit of the secessionist movement. “We want to suspend all activities with the north until we separate from them,” he said.

Sports in Yemen have proven important for fostering consensus and a sense of national belonging, particularly after unification and the bloody civil war between north and south in 1994.

The YFA was originally established in North Yemen in 1962, becoming a member of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in 1980, but only found its modern form in 1990 when South Yemen’s league was incorporated following unification.

Thirty-two teams, 16 from northern governorates and 16 from the south, entered the first national championship in the 1990-91 season, and until the outbreak of civil war in 1994 the captaincy at every club would alternate between southerners and northerners for each match.

Mohammad Mukhtar, 22, plays for Hassan Football Club in Abyan governorate. He says he hasn’t attended training since mid-January, and while financial difficulties have played a role he highlights the security situation across the country as the main interference.

“Traveling from Abyan to Sana’a or any other governorate is very difficult. We need money and protection and the club simply can’t provide it,” he said.

As a southerner, Mukhtar says he is especially concerned about travelling to the northern governorates for matches, but says he is usually surprised by the warm reception he and his teammates receive from the crowd.

“When we headed to Ibb governorate to play a match against their Al-Ittihad football team, we used to expect hostility from the locals because of the current political situation,” he said. “We thought we would be attacked, but they still gave us a respectful reception and left politics out of it.”

Many in the YFA’s general assembly welcomed the decision to suspend the league, only regretting it did not come sooner. Members complained of vagueness and indecisiveness when matches were postponed after Jan. 10, leaving clubs struggling to remain open when no funds were forthcoming, while monthly expenses for the YFA itself run in excess of YR3,000,000 ($14,000).

Some players also welcomed the decision. Players at Al-Ittihad in Ibb, which has been struggling more than many other clubs in the country, by the end of January had not received their salaries for four months.

Players had nonetheless continued playing in anticipation of the government’s annual budget, while their clubs appealed for emergency funding. Mohammad Abdulfattah, who plays for Al-Ittihad, is unhappy to be out of work but is relieved a decision was finally taken. “We love the club, we want to give it all we have, but no one can endure under these circumstances,” he said.

The committee’s decision was delayed following lengthy negotiations with management at the various clubs, which now number 14 in addition to another 20 playing in the second division. The initial suspension in January was enforced by the committee without consulting the clubs, but a final decision was taken with the participation of all of the YFA’s stakeholders.

Discussions of security concerns also included a proposal to hold all matches in designated governorates, according to Al-Rejal. Hodeida, Ibb and Taiz were suggested by committee members given the relative calm in their capital cities, but it was never approved by members of the general assembly and assumes the necessary funding will be acquired.