News of the airport closing down didn’t come through too clearly for Yemen’s U-16 national football team. The Sana’a International Airport shutting down could only mean one thing – precautions against an upcoming air raid by the Saudi Arabian air force. The squad was scheduled to head out to Malaysia for a pre-tournament camp ahead of the U-16 AFC Championship in Goa. Their next option was to take the sea route, but the country’s docks had been bombed and their boats destroyed. It was time to be audacious. So the group of teenagers decided to hop onto a bus, drive down to the border, and then fly out from the very country their own nation had been at war with for the past few years.
If anyone knew the dangers of leaving the country, it is the squad’s delegation head Abdulwahab Al Zurqa. Just last year, as the manager of the senior national team, Al Zurqa boarded a refugee boat at night with the players and coaching staff. The idea was to sail to Djibouti and then fly to Doha where they were to play their ‘home’ World Cup qualifier against North Korea. Though the junior team did travel in a comfortable air conditioned bus this time, compared to the harsh heat the seniors had to brave through as they slept on the ship’s deck, Al Zurqa regrets that his teenaged team could not travel by boat. “It’s actually much less dangerous because you can’t be caught once you leave the dock. But by road there are constant air strikes. We were more prone to getting bombed by road than at sea,” he asserts.
The drive itself from Sana’a to the border lasted three days. There they were detained for nine hours before they were allowed to proceed to Jeddah. It was a small albeit risky price to pay for a country whose sporting endeavours are on the brink of ending. The regular league has been abandoned since most of the stadia around the country are often soft targets for Saudi Arabian missiles. “Only few days ago, the national stadium in Sana’a was bombed,” Al Zarqa says.
Yet within the commotion, the 43-year-old has noticed an increasingly stronger and nationalistic bond build in sport. “Us playing football regularly is like a revolutionary act against Saudi. We are denied playing because of our stadia getting bombed, so we do it even more,” he adds.
Subsequently, Al Zarqa found no protest from anyone in the squad when he proposed the dangerous travel plan. The players have grown used to living and playing with the sound of gunfire and bombs going off nearby. A chance to play football abroad then became even more paramount. “They sang songs, played games and dozed off on the aisle floor of the bus during the journey. The boys took things quite positively,” explains Al Zarqa, who had once played for the junior national team.
The chance to leave Yemen was also a method to promote the country. “Nobody knows what’s happening back home. But here at least our flag can flutter,” says Mohammed Alameri, head of the Yemeni community in India. “It’s also a chance for the players to feel safe at least for a month,” adds Al Zarqa.
The return trip hasn’t yet been decided, yet it does promise to be a bit more straightforward. A flight from Mumbai to the Middle-East will be followed by another bus ride to Yemen. There is one plan to touch down in Jordan before they take to the road. “Or maybe Saudi Arabia again,” Al Zarqa says, smiling.