The Republic of Yemen occupies the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike its oil-rich neighbors, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. Like other countries football (soccer) is Yemen’s most popular sport. Football has been played in parts of Yemen since before the turn of the 20th century, and since the 1970s, the game’s popularity has increased significantly.

Contemporary Football Scene

Compared to Europe, Yemen’s football culture is still in its formative phase. Matches are played in public stadiums before all-male audiences. Tickets are inexpensive, but attendance depends on the teams playing. In the main cities, it is routine to find pickup games played in alleys, streets, and car parks. International matches are watched via satellite broadcast. Boys and men wear international team or player jerseys.

Most men claim a favorite Yemeni team and follow its success even if they do not attend matches. Residents of the capital and other primary cities often support teams from the regions where they were born. In secondary cities, football allegiances tend to be the local club.

Football teams represent sports clubs. The Yemen Football Association observes the FIFA division structure. The premier (first) division has 14 teams, the second has 20 teams, and the remaining 258 teams compete in the third.

Broadcasts of matches are rare even for international friendly or tournament contests, but sports information is widely available. Sports pages in most daily newspapers are supplemented by as many as ten weekly sports papers and several sports magazines.[1] These circulate primarily in the major cities.

The Ministry of Youth and Sport partially subsidizes sports clubs, both with cash and endowments of income-generating properties. Declining support has forced clubs to rely on donors to underwrite their activities. The most successful clubs attract the most fans and financial backers.

Although Yemen’s FIFA ranking has been improving, the national team has not reached the level of most of its neighbors. Yemen participates in the biennial regional Gulf Cup competition and will host the 2011 round (scheduled for the end of 2010).

Football During the Republican Eras

Until 1990 Yemen was divided into the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). When each state achieved independent, republican status in the late 1960s, the power of the central governments did not penetrate into the parochial hinterlands. Residents identified closely with their local groups and held only minimal affiliation to the larger polity.

The two governments - one capitalist leaning, the other socialist leaning - sought to promote identification with their political ideologies and incorporate citizens into a national polity. In addition to expanding the number of schools, the governments sought to promote national identity through media, education, and military service. In addition, the regimes encouraged the formation of sports clubs. Sports clubs have the advantage of drawing upon local affiliation yet at the same time incorporating clubs into state systems.[2] Both regional and national identities are encouraged. The success of these efforts may be measured in the steady growth of clubs during the period between 1970-90.[3]

Owing to ideological differences, relations between the states were strained, and this encouraged separate national identities. At the same time, politicians and literati called for a unified state as a goal. This ethos of a shared identity resonated with portions of the populace.

Several times in the 1970s and 1980s the Yemens held cross-border football matches.[4] Official newspaper accounts fomented the idea that the matches were to heal rifts between the sides and promote the notion of one Yemen. As conducted, it was clear that each regime used the games to validate its political system. Spectators tended to adopt the official line and hung banners in support of unification. Although these contests were a form of sports diplomacy, the efforts were not sustained beyond a few years.

Football in United Yemen

In 1990 the two Yemens united to form the Republic of Yemen. While unification was portrayed as a blending of coequal states, union was not a genuine joining of comparable partners. The former North Yemen had about twice the population of the former South Yemen. Both countries were in serious fiscal straits; the financial status of South Yemen, whose Soviet benefactors had withdrawn, was especially critical.

After years of perceiving the other side as the enemy, the united government needed to create the illusion that all citizens shared the same identity and would be treated equally. Parity in government posts was demonstrated by merging their respective parliaments and ministries, insuring that the highest posts were distributed evenly between persons from the former countries. The most visible effort to portray equity was the first combined football season.

Ministry of Youth and Sport officials believed extensive competitions would promote identification with the new state. An editorial in ar-Riyadah, a sports newspaper, stated “The first national football championship represents an effective means of enhancing the national unity among Yemeni youth.”[5]

Ministry of Youth and Sport officials used the first football season as one to classify teams in new divisions. Additional teams were selected to insure that both sides were equally represented. Thirty-two teams, each playing seven home and seven away matches, contested for the national title in a year-long tournament.

About midway through the season, ar-Riyadah reiterated the tournament’s significance:

One of the positive aspects of the first unified football championship is that it represents the first occasion in which teams from the formerly two Yemens compete in one tournament. Thus, youth from [the north] meet with their counterparts from [the south]. This marvelous opportunity comes as a natural extension of the unity of the homeland and people. [6]

In a final bit of symbolism the championship game was played on the anniversary of unification.

The effort to promote a new national identity was evident in the selection of the national team. When the team’s members were announced, each former state was represented by 16 players. In the press, the roster alternated between a player from the north and the south. There was an assistant coach from each state. During matches, the team captaincy alternated.

Both the tournament and the national team actions were intended to demonstrate the government’s stated goal for unification - the recreation of the historic state - and so encourage citizens to identify themselves with the newly created nation.

It is impossible to measure the long-term success of these efforts because conflicts between the political leaders resulted in an attempt at secession in 1994. For many Yemenis the wounds created by that conflict have not healed.

Conclusion

Football remains an important pastime, but Yemen’s crumbling economy and political instability have dominated daily life for the last several years. Yemen’s first-ever victory over Bahrain in January went almost unnoticed. Citizens will be elated to host the Gulf Cup later this year - unless security concerns force its relocation - and their sense of identity will be reinforced, especially if their team wins a few matches in its first year in the tournament.

 


[1]. The number of newspapers fluctuates as some begin and others cease publication.

[2]. This paradoxical outcome was first described by Janet Lever, Soccer Madness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[3]. See Thomas B. Stevenson, “Sports Clubs and Political Integration in the Yemen Arab Republic,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1989), pp. 299-313 and Thomas B. Stevenson and Abdul Karim Alaug, “Football in Yemen: Rituals of Resistance, Integration and Identity,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Vol. 32, No. 3 (1997), pp. 251-265.

[4]. See Thomas B. Stevenson and Abdul Karim Alaug, “Sports Diplomacy and Emergent Nationalism: Football Links between the Two Yemens, 1970-1990,” Anthropology of the Middle East, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2008), pp. 1-19.

[5]. ar-Riyadah (Sports Newspaper, Sana’a), Number 24, November 4, 1990, p. 7.

[6]. ar-Riyadah, Number 44, March 24, 1991, p. 6.