Sanaa, Yemen – In Maeen district in the heart of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, about 10 street vendors gathered on the side of a busy road to watch the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match.
The men, who make a living selling vegetables or black-market petrol, crowded around a laptop that one of the vendors had brought and placed on some cardboard on the ground.
As they watched the match in the shade of a building, some standing, others sitting – the odd passer-by stopping to catch parts of the game – the spectators temporarily forgot about their worries. The men jumped and shouted whenever a goal was scored.
When the match ended in a 2-1 victory to Saudi Arabia, the fans of the Saudi team cheered and cracked jokes about Argentina and Lionel Messi. The Argentina supporters were speechless.
“Football is unmatched fun,” said Abdulrahman Nasser, a Messi fan who looked to be in his thirties. “It is a recipe that can increase one’s joy and make its fans care less about their life problems.”
For many in Yemen, the World Cup has offered a welcome distraction and a different topic of conversation.
“Politics and war were the topics of our talks and gatherings,” explained 40-year-old self-employed taxi driver Fuad Qasem at a coffee shop in Sanaa where patrons had gathered to watch the tournament’s opening match between Qatar and Ecuador. “[But] today, the World Cup has displaced such a topic from our heads, and keeping updated on this event has been a priority,” he added.
An eight-year war has devastated Yemen, leaving thousands of people dead and triggering a humanitarian catastrophe. In October, the two warring sides failed to agree on an extension to a United Nations-brokered truce.
Despite the hardship brought on by the conflict, many Yemenis’ love for football has not wavered.
Gazing at the television screen with his cheeks full of qat, a narcotic leaf many Yemenis consume during social gatherings, Qasem told the four friends sitting with him, “Let us relish this moment and forget about the war. I parked my taxi, put work and money aside, and came to watch this event.”
Around him, the atmosphere grew rowdy as people vied for seats with a clear view of the screen, and sat down with their water, juice or Pepsi as they waited for the match to start.
Qasem excitedly checked the line-ups for both teams, reading out details to his friends about the players’ professional achievements.
‘Disrupted the murky atmosphere’
Almost everyone in the coffee shop wanted Qatar to win. So when, 16 minutes into the game, Ecuador scored their first goal, many of those watching slapped their foreheads with their palms in frustration.
Qatar’s eventual 2-0 loss didn’t diminish the sense of awe and pride many of those gathered felt about an Arab country hosting the World Cup for the first time.
“This event is the talk of everyone, and Qatar is the one that dreamed of this moment years ago and turned the dream into reality,” Qasem said.
Mohammed Ali, a 23-year-old studying public relations at university in Sanaa, saw the tournament as a rare source of hope and entertainment. He believed Yemenis are fed up with talking about the country’s conflict as such conversations trigger fears about the future.
Ali’s friend Izadeen Madi, a 24-year-old studying English at an education college in Sanaa, likewise believed that always talking about the country’s war-related challenges such as the fuel shortages of previous months affects people’s psyches. “When negative news prevails, we see life as harder and sadder. This is what millions of Yemenis have sensed throughout the war,” he said. “Indeed, the World Cup matches are in Doha, but it has disrupted the murky atmosphere here.”
Mahdi said his favourite team is usually Brazil, who he expected to progress to the final rounds. But with a slight smile on his narrow face, he added that he hoped one of the four competing Arab countries would win.
This tournament, he believed, is a special moment for the Arab world. “I am a big fan of Brazilian football players. But when they face Arab teams, I encourage the latter. Whether it is Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Morocco, I will support them against European or other international teams.”
Private coffee shops and the Ministry of Youth and Sports set up viewing screens in advance of the World Cup.
There are viewing spots in Sanaa football stadiums, and outdoor screens in 10 districts of Taiz, a city about 260km (161 miles) south of the capital. To the northeast of Sanaa, about 173km (107 miles) away, screens were organised in different neighbourhoods of Marib city, which has been a refuge for tens of thousands of internally displaced persons throughout the war.
Ammar Saleh, a 35-year-old primary school teacher in Sanaa, has been a passionate football fan since he was a child.
Yemenis are obsessed with football, according to Saleh, which explained why the World Cup was so popular. “If it is volleyball, tennis, or any other game, I would not care. And this stance applies to millions of Yemenis,” he said.
Saleh watched the first day of the tournament with his parents and siblings at home. “We tried to finish our tasks of the day before the start of the opening ceremony and the first match. It was a great time filled with joy and tension. In every match, we have a particular team to support, which is why it is tense.”
For him, an Arab team’s success in the World Cup is a triumph for all Arabs. In Saleh’s opinion, Arab countries may differ, but with so much in common – shared language and religion, for example – when one country achieves great things at the international level, all Arabs feel proud.
A lesson in perseverance
Saleh Abdulla, a 25-year-old grocery store employee in Sanaa, has been watching the matches on his mobile phone at work. “I am addicted to watching football games, especially the World Cup tournament,” Abdulla told Al Jazeera.
During the opening match, dressed in the traditional Yemeni outfit consisting of a robe, belt and jambia, a type of dagger, Abdulla sat in a chair with his phone on a desk in front of him in the store where people buy yoghurt, biscuits, cooking oil, chocolate and other items.
When a customer came in while he was watching the game, he stood up, politely brought them their items, took their money and swiftly returned to the game. Usually, Abdulla said his social media accounts are inundated with posts about the conflict.
“[Now,] when I browse social media platforms such as Facebook, I see almost all posts discussing the World Cup in Qatar,” he said. “So we got a break from war news in day-to-day conversation and on virtual social sites.”
Abdulla has been following the World Cup ever since 2002. For him, that was “the most amazing tournament”.
While many see this sporting event as an outlet for joy, others believe it shows great feats are possible.
“Hosting this event in Qatar is a considerable glory, and the second glory will happen if an Arab country wins the World Cup,” Madhi said. “That is why football fans in Yemen or other Arab countries are tense. They seek a double success: hosting and winning the World Cup 2022.”
For others, the tournament holds an important lesson.
Leila Amri, a 34-year-old university graduate in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera that Qatar did not accomplish the event preparations overnight. “It took years of hard work, cooperation, and perseverance,” she said. “This should remind all warring sides in Yemen that fighting and hatred will never bring peace or prosperity to our country.”