Divided Yemen finds moment of unity in underdog youth soccer victory over Saudi Arabia – The Washington Post

SANAA, Yemen — They poured into the streets from houses and cafes, their cheers soaring over a cacophony of fireworks and celebratory gunfire.
After seven years of division, Yemenis united on Monday over a rare bit of good news in a country ravaged by a deadly civil war: Their under-15 boys’ soccer team won the West Asia junior football championship, defeating neighboring Saudi Arabia for the title.
The win elicited a cascade of national pride across the country, from the north — where the Iranian-backed Houthi militants are in power — to the south, which remains under the control of the internationally recognized government, backed by Riyadh.
Both his children were dying. Yemen’s crisis forced him to choose only one to save.
In cities that have in recent years been rocked by airstrikes, bombings and shelling, people spilled into the streets in celebration, seizing the opportunity to relish — if just for a moment — the forgotten taste of uninhibited joy.
Celebrations escalated so dramatically that the Houthi Health Ministry issued a warning for residents to stay indoors and avoid open spaces because of the risk of stray bullets.

“The streets were packed and all people were chanting, ‘With souls, with blood, we redeem you, Yemen,’ ” said Alaa Hussein Mohammed, 30, who watched the game with friends in the southern city of Aden, where the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist group, is also competing with the government for control. “There was no place for politics. We were all one: in the north, in the south, everywhere.”
The youth team overcame huge obstacles to secure the win, having lived about half their lives in a country beset by violence. Yemen has been submerged in war for about seven years. The Houthis took control of the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, eventually forcing the internationally recognized government to relocate to Aden. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015.
More than 10,000 Yemeni children have been killed or maimed since 2015, according to U.N. data.
In the past year, fighting has escalated dramatically in the gas-rich province of Marib, a crucial government stronghold in the north where the Houthis are now vying for control. Earlier on Monday, a top military commander, Maj. Gen. Nasser al-Dhaibani, was reportedly killed in clashes in the province.
Millions of people are displaced, and the United Nations warned this year that some 16 million are “marching toward starvation.” In some parts of the country, civilians are already living in famine-like conditions.
The Monday evening win offered civilians much-needed relief from the hardships of daily life in a war zone.
Aseel Abdullah Alabsi, 23, a dentistry student in Taiz, an ancient Yemeni city that has been plagued by violence for years, watched the game with friends. After the win, they rushed to Jamal Street, a major thoroughfare in Taiz, “and shared our joy with the people.”
“The street was packed with cars, and we were flying from happiness,” he said.
Yemen’s seven-year civil war could turn on fierce fighting in remote Marib province
Bassam Hasan Alqahtani, 24, a pharmacist in Sanaa, went to a stadium with dozens of his friends to watch the game, which took place in Saudi Arabia, broadcast on big screens. “The whole atmosphere was amazing,” he said.

For him, beating Saudi Arabia added more significance to the win.
“Our happiness is two: one for winning the cup and the second for winning against Saudi Arabia,” he said.
But more so, it offered him a glimpse of optimism that has long been missing in Yemen.
“The victory has brought hope to all of us that even during the suffering and hardship we have been going through due to the war, there is hope,” he said.
Alabsi, the dentistry student, echoed that sentiment. His happiness, he said, was “more than I can express in words.”
“We have been suffering from the building up of all the problems and misery caused by the conflict,” he said. Seeing the country come together in celebration “shows how united we are as a Yemeni nation.”
Celebrations also erupted in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood, where many Yemenis live.
Among those who gathered outside to cheer the win was Abdulghani Ali Abdullah Albartani, 36, who is in Cairo with his brother, who is being treated for liver cancer.
Like many civilians seeking medical treatment abroad, they endured a difficult journey from Sanaa, where hospital conditions have deteriorated and the airport has been closed for years because of Saudi restrictions on the country’s airspace.
After so much hardship, Monday’s win offered Albartani “inexplicable happiness,” he said. “The joy was for all Yemenis; even those who are fighting each other, everyone was happy.”
His nephew, Jalal Jamil, 25, said that although a youth soccer win may seem small to outsiders, Yemenis are grasping for “any small detail” to celebrate.
“For a long time in Yemen, nothing has made us happy,” he said.

O’Grady reported from Cairo.
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