“When I took the job I told them that I couldn’t do it inside the country, only outside,” explained Jan Kocian.
It’s not often that an international football coach insists on such requirements when accepting a job but for the Slovak manager his latest stop was one where it was necessary.
For the past three months, the 60-year-old has been in charge of Yemen, a nation that is in the midst of a bloody civil conflict that has claimed the lives of over 60,000 people.
Amnesty International figures show that three million more were forced from their homes, two and a half million children are unable to attend school and more than 22 million people are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Dubbed the ‘forgotten war’, the conflict between Saudi-backed Yemeni government, led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the Iranian-backed Houthi group has rumbled on for almost half a decade and during those years football has, understandably, been put on hold.
There has been no league in Yemen for the past four seasons and it’s nothing short of miraculous that the nation both qualified for and were competitive at their very first Asian Cup this month, as Kocian told TRT World.
“It’s complicated and we must accept it because the players can’t play inside Yemen so this means that they don’t have enough experience for this kind of tournament,” he said.
“There is no league inside Yemen and the players just play some small cup competitions so for this Asian Cup I sent one of my local assistants to watch some of those games.
“From those 100 players we brought 25 to a camp in Saudi Arabia and then I had to choose my final squad based from that.”
Against such a backdrop, it’s little surprise that Yemen were outclassed in their three matches, losing 5-0 to Iran, 3-0 to Iraq and then 2-0 to Vietnam.
Although there are several players that have been handed a chance to play in professional leagues throughout the region, predominantly in Qatar, more than a third of the squad hailed from the non-existent domestic league in Yemen.
One of those was defender Ahmed Saeed, nominally on the books of Al Wehda Sports Club based in the southern city of Aden, the seat of the Hadi government. He described his father as a ‘soldier’ and told TRT World that his dream was to become a professional footballer.
“Our country is suffering from the situation in Yemen but we struggled in qualifying to reach the Asian Cup and we hope that we were able to give a good image of our country through football,” he said.
“It was a dream for me to be able to participate in this Asian Cup and now I want to continue my dream of being a professional football player.”
One member of the squad for whom that dream has already been achieved is the diminutive playmaker Ahmed Al Sarori.
The 20-year-old is currently on the books of Qatari club Al Markhiya, but last year created history by becoming the first Arab player to play in Brazil when he enjoyed a stint with the storied Internacional club in Porto Alegre.
“That was a difficult experience for me being the first Arab player in Brazil, but I learned a lot from that experience as well as these matches at the Asian Cup,” he said.
“If we look at these games it was just small mistakes that hurt us but this won’t stop me from chasing my dream to play professionally in Europe.
“My parents and all my family were watching our matches back in Yemen and even though we have fighting in my country all Yemeni people love football.”
That was also the message from the national captain, Ala Al Sasi, when he spoke with TRT World, after the nation’s final match in the UAE.
“We didn’t play good enough and we know that but now we must look to the future and resolve our mistakes so hopefully in the future we can reach a good level,” he said.
“There are many talented players inside Yemen but because the war stopped the league for four years it makes most of them lose their level and with no league it was very difficult for us at this Asian Cup.
“The preparation was not good enough and all players are responsible for this result because we wanted to try our best to make our fans and the people of Yemen happy.”
Yemen were not alone in managing to qualify despite untold hardship at home, with Syria and Palestine also reaching the Asian Cup, but all three nations were eliminated in the group stage.
For Yemen though, in the midst of a conflict that shows no sign of ending anytime soon, you have to wonder just how long it will be before they are able to field a genuinely competitive side at international level.
As the coach Kocian noted, the challenges the nation faces are immense.
“The players simply don’t have enough experience, for the tournament we had big problems with our goalkeepers and the first choice had an injury, another stayed in Yemen and couldn’t come here, so we had just two keepers and you saw the trouble we had in these matches.”
When asked by TRT World, as he left the stadium, if he would continue with Yemen he paused and said he’d need to consider ‘many things’.
Surely chief amongst those is just how difficult it is to play and coach in a nation with no football league, no development pathways and for many young men no way out of a conflict that is ravaging their nation.
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