Hours after East Timor had defeated Mongolia 4-1 in Dili, the City of Peace, and 1190 days before Russia would kick off the 2018 World Cup, Yemen took their first steps in qualifying for the quadrennial tournament. They had been paired with Pakistan in a first-round play-off in Asia’s reformatted qualification campaign. At least eight more games against some of the continent’s elite teams in the next round were at stake. 

Yemen led their opponents by a dozen places in the Fifa rankings but both countries had a defunct league. The Pakistan Premier League had buckled under the mismanagement of its own federation while the Yemeni League had collapsed under a civil war. These were national teams on the periphery of the global game where the struggle for stability always inhibits sporting success. 

At the Grand Hamad Stadium in downtown Doha, Yemen’s temporary base, a smattering of Yemeni fans watched the maiden steps of their team. In the stands, their minds lingered on the situation back home, but they had come to support their national team – Sunni and Shia side by side, fans from all walks of life waved the Yemeni flag. Yemen despatched Pakistan 3-1 and held firm in the return leg, moved from Lahore to Bahrain after two suicide bombers wreaked carnage in the Pakistani city. This victory would only be the beginning of an arduous and unprecedented four-year journey. 

Mohamed Ba Rowis, a lean 33-year-old right back, and Ahmed Saeed, a 24-year-old midfielder with a mohawk, both play for Al-Wehda Aden SC, the premier club in Yemen’s main port city. The defender ascribes much of his growth and development in the game to Amjad Al Shaab, an Under-13 coach at the club. Al Shaab scouted Ba Rowis and Mohamed Habtoor at a local pick-up game and introduced the youngsters to the club. “He is like an older brother who lives in our street,” said Ba Rowis.

Aged 12, Ba Rowis arrived at Al-Wehda, a pivotal moment in his career as his parents realised his potential and supported his attempts to become a professional player. He grew up watching his idol Ronaldinho on TV and YouTube. Ba Rowis smiles apologetically when he admits that the Brazilian’s individual skills and grin left an indelible imprint on his mind. He shuffles uncomfortably: talking of the venerated Brazilian almost seems inappropriate, but during his childhood of kickabouts in the streets and on the beach near the Red Sea, Ba Rowis showed ambition. “No one took my hand and took me to the field,” he said. “I watched the players of the national team and told myself I want to be like them. I struggled as hard as I could until I got to Al-Wehda.”

In Ba Rowis’s teens, Yemen’s Under-17 team qualified for the 2003 World Cup in Finland. They had finished runners-up in the 2002 U-17 Asian Championship, but in Tampere they finished bottom of their group with a single point. They pushed a Portugal including João Moutinho all the way, losing 4-3, gained a valuable point in a 1-1 draw with Cameroon but were beaten by the eventual champions Brazil 3-0 in their final group game. In the build-up to the tournament, Yemen staged a training camp in Spain, where they defeated their talented hosts 1-0. The sole player from that team in the squad at the 2019 Asian Cup was the injured first-choice goalkeeper Mohammed Ayash.

“Firstly, Yemen was stable,” Ba Rowis explains. “The economic environment was good and everything was suitable. We had a youth league and we focused on football. Our youth and junior players are always ambitious and work hard. There were no worries, there was no family to worry about, to get a headache about. It was just football, football and football. Their ambitions change, however, when they reach the first team: there is family, life responsibilities, life conditions, no league, no money. It is different.”

Saeed featured in Yemen’s Under-14 team at the 2008 Asian Football Confederation Festival of Football in Qatar, which his team went on to win. He played at school, in the streets and then at Al-Wehda, a club he rejoined in summer 2018 after spending time with Al Tilal. Saeed picks Cristiano Ronaldo as his idol, because of the Portuguese’s work ethic. His father is enlisted with the military, his mother is a housewife. “My parents never failed me,” Saeed said. “We had neither boots nor kits but we had our ambition and the dream of playing for the national team.”

The former technical director and coach Abraham Mebratu, an Ethiopian, picked Saeed for the national team in 2017. The midfielder hadn’t featured in Yemen’s youth teams, but convinced Mebratu of his qualities during a friendly club tournament. “He is one of the national team’s most promising young players,” Mebratu said. 

In 2015, the conflict in Yemen escalated. The war has led to death, famine, starvation and a country that has collapsed entirely, with the international community showing little interest in mediating a solution. In total, 85,000 children under the age of five have died of starvation and an estimated 14 million people run the risk of famine. “The character of the civil war changed substantially almost four years ago, because of foreign intervention,” explained James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “It has turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”

Even before the foreign meddling, the situation had deteriorated. Fifa banned Yemen from staging 2014 World Cup qualifiers at home. Between September 2012 and March 2013, the inveterate Belgian globetrotter Tom Saintfiet led the national team in 11 games. He never attended domestic games outside the capital Sana’a and even there he needed escorts to the stadium. He spent most of his time holed up in his modest hotel room: luxury hotels were considered too dangerous. “You’d hear shooting at times,” Saintfiet recalls. “People were carrying Kalashnikov rifles. It was unsafe with a risk of kidnappings. The mental pressure wore you down.”

Since 2014 the domestic game in Yemen has been paralysed. Al Tilal won the last Yemeni championship and Al Saqr topped the table that same year before the league was halted. Those two clubs, together with Al-Wehda Sana’a and Al-Ahli Sana’a, form the backbone of the local topflight. They are supported across Yemen and in the past boasted budgets, based on government support, sponsoring and patronage, of between US$1 million and $1.5 million, according to Mohamed Bin Abdat, a football journalist from Yemen. They have all become defunct, just like Al Saqr and Al Sha’ab Ibb, clubs noted for youth development.

Almost all of Yemen’s professional players have been forced to pursue other jobs to support themselves and Ba Rowis is contemplating a role in the sports industry. Saeed doesn’t want to think about it. Ayash secured a government position. At Al-Wehda Aden, the players receive no salary, but accrue a symbolic “transportation allowance”. The money Ba Rowis earned during a spell at Umm Salal in Qatar as well as his national team fees are spent on his basic needs. He has a $50-a-month gym membership to keep fit. So does Saeed. They hit the gym in the morning and train in the afternoon. Ba Rowis and Saeed both complain about a lack of professional ethos in Aden, but amid the destitution of the club’s facilities – only parts of the Hamed Sheik Stadium stand and the basketball hall’s roof has been destroyed by bombs – football has almost come to a standstill. Every few months local tournaments are organised in Aden and across Yemen, including the Martyr Major General Ali Nasser Hadi Championship and the Ali Muhesen Trophy.

Musleh Salman, intermittently Yemen’s team doctor since 2005, voices similar grievances. He graduated from Kuwait University and pursued specialisation in Cairo, but his salary has plummeted during the war to $100. From the Yemeni Football Association, he receives $200, down from $600. In the capital he sleeps in the doctor’s hostel next to the hospital where he practices orthopaedics. “Only the Red Cross provides us with supplies” Salman said. “Emergency supplies. They provide food, clothes and electricity.”

The war has also disrupted the Yemen Football Association. The Federation’s president Ahmed Al-Eissi lives in Saudi Arabia, the vice-president Hassan Bashchner in Cairo and the general-secretary Hamid Al Shaibani in Doha. Fifa ceased their funding for the YFA in 2015. “Since Fifa is domiciled in Switzerland, sanctions of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs as well as the Swiss Federal Council are binding for us,” said a Fifa spokesperson. “Therefore the last payment to the Yemen Football Association was made in March 2015 under the former Financial Assistance Programme.”

The exiled association relies on the personal wealth of Al-Eissi. Last December, Le Monde portrayed Al-Eissi as a divisive warlord – “a shark to his detractors” – with a “de facto monopoly on gasoline deliveries to the large port of Aden.” Al-Eissi, a 1990s’ small-time entrepreneur, built his empire through the transport of crude oil, befriended the old regime of Ali Abdalleh Saleh and later switched his loyalty to Abdrabbuh Hadi. He owned the football club Al-Hilal in Al Hudaydah and held business meetings at the stadium. An undated article on the official website of the YFA condemns “a conspiracy and plot” by intelligence and security forces to target the life of Al-Eissi.

“Football in the Middle East is politically controlled,” explains Dorsey. “Whoever heads the federation has the endorsement and trust of that regime. Now, the Yemeni FA basically falls under the exiled government. It is a part of a divided country and part of the division.”

At home, the YFA has adopted a circumspect policy of neutrality, treading a fine line between the warring factions of Houthi rebels and President Hadi’s loyalists. Bashchner calls it “working for Yemen”. Abroad, Yemen’s national team is reliant on charity: Qatar hosted Yemen’s Asian Cup qualifiers and Saudi Arabia staged repeated two-week training camps in November and December 2018 in Riyadh.

The Qatar Football Federation issued a resolution to accommodate Yemeni players by treating them as residents. In AFC competitions clubs can field three foreigners and one player from an AFC member nation, but Qatar’s domestic leagues allow a maximum of five non-Qataris in a starting line-up. “We are the only Gulf nation who treated the Yemeni players as local players, because of the preparation for the Asian Cup,” said the QFA spokesman Ali al-Salat. Ba Rowis was one of the benefactors during his spell in the Qatari second division.

The Qatari capital staged all of Yemen’s home qualifiers. Mebratu lived in Doha, but the city and the sterile atmosphere of its modern stadiums never felt like home. Yemen ceded home advantage and the altitude of Sana’a, 2,250m above sea level. The Ethiopian, who coached Al-Eissi’s club in Al Hudaydah for a season, relied on his experience with the Olympic team for squad selection. He’d still travel by bus to Sana’a to team meetings in 2016 and 2017 during the Asian Cup qualifiers. “The 0-0 draw away to Tajikistan was the crucial match,” Mebratu said. “We got a good point and the last match was against Nepal. We were confident of beating Nepal at home.”

Riyadh accorded Yemen the same status as its own national team. The Yemeni delegation was hosted in upscale hotels and enjoyed state-of-the-art training facilities. “We treated the Yemeni team exactly as we treated the Saudi team,” said Turki Al-Awad, a board member of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

On November 1, the Slovakian coach Ján Kocian and his assistant Miloslav Brožek were introduced to their players for the first time in the Saudi capital. Ba Rowis, Saeed and the other players had travelled for more than 30 hours overland by bus from Mukalla, the capital of Yemen’s largest governorate Hadhramaut. From all over the country the players had been bussed to the port city. “There is a danger in taking the bus, but Yemenis are used to this,” explained Saeed. “We are the national team. We have the flag and logo. Everyone allows us to travel. From Yemen to Oman it is almost 33 hours.”

In Mukalla, a relative safe zone, the team’s second assistant Mohammed Al-Nufyaee had organised a one-month camp to select a preliminary team. Kocian had little choice but to accept Al-Nufyaee’s picks. The Slovakian had seen a few videos, made himself acquainted with about 40 players, but was later told that “a lot of the squad are no longer playing football and no one knows what they are doing at present.”

Team selection was always difficult, but scouting in Yemen has become almost impossible. Kocian’s contract prevented him even from entering the country. “It is hard to select the players for the national team,” Ba Rowis said. “How do you even select the best players? You have to call up some players and go to the other cities. It is not done in a professional way. We have got a lot of players who haven’t had the opportunity to get to the national team.”

Back in Riyadh, Kocian and Brožek found a highly committed squad, a mix of senior and Under-23 players who wanted to excel and train, leaving the horror of home behind, yet the coaching duo sensed unease during the initial acclimatisation  The players were worried. “They had suddenly left their home country, we coaches were also new,” said Kocian. “So, we asked them how things were at home. Whether life there was hard, whether all this shooting and bombing was really going on. We discussed the situation but they also said: we are here now, we must concentrate on football. It is clear that they often called home and that as soon as they received some pocket money, they immediately sent it to their families.”

With his modest command of English, Ba Rowis, “a hard-working, industrious full-back” according to Saintfiet, became a go-between for communication between the staff and players. Circumstances were difficult: the players were simply not match fit. Brožek recalls that the coaches asked the players to switch tempo during practice to overcome their monotonous rhythm. In warm-up games, Yemen lost 2-0 to their hosts and 1-0 to the United Arab Emirates.

These were respectable results, but in December Saudi Arabia prevented Yemen from travelling to Qatar for a training camp because of the political tension between the countries. Kocian and Brožek were whisked to the top floor of a Riyadh luxury hotel and told by Saudi officials that Doha was a no-go. They sat startled as officials of the YFA received stashes of dollars to fund alternative preparation.

In Doha, Yemen had planned friendlies against Tajikistan, Palestine and Lebanon, arguably more modest opposition than the Saudis and the UAE, but still vital to the team’s preparations for the Asian Cup. Instead, the Yemeni delegation flew off to Malaysia to play friendlies against local clubs Selangor FA, PDRM FA and UiTM FC. The camp was paid for by Saudi Arabia, Al-Awad confirmed. 

Below the floodlights of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in downtown Abu Dhabi, and with the cacophonous noise of the Iranian fans rolling down from the stands, Yemen’s players huddled a little longer than usual, one more time summoning their courage before taking on one of the continent’s most daunting teams. Those final moments of team-building concluded the long, war-ridden years that had separated Yemen from the 2019 Asian Cup.

“We said to each other: this a serious moment for Yemen to make history,” said Ba Rowis. “We have one and a half hours ahead of us. We have to fight, do our best and look back without any regrets.”

The Iranians broke up their huddle and the Japanese referee Ryuji Sato seemed impatient to get the game underway. From the bench Ahmed Saeed, Yemen’s number six, watched, moved and thrilled by the prospect of facing Carlos Queiroz’s side. “When we got together before the match we read Al Fatiha from the holy Quran and we felt that we had one spirit in the team,” says Saeed. “We asked God to help us get a good result out of the game.”

Iran, however, showed little mercy. The reality was stark: Yemen, 135th in the Fifa rankings and the lowest-rated team in the tournament, were torn apart by Queiroz’s team. Yemen enjoyed a flourish in the opening exchanges and a seventh-minute attempt from the attacking Ahmed Al Sarori, but Iran won 5-0. On the right Ba Rowis struggled against Mehdi Toremi while Saeed made little impact as a 64th-minute substitute. After the final whistle, Ba Rowis, Saeed and the other Yemeni players looked abject. 

They had fought and waited for years through war and death to play this game, but defeat still felt grim.