Over the next two years or so, there will be hundreds of 2026 World Cup qualifiers across the planet, but few will be as meaningful as the clash this week between Yemen and Sri Lanka.
On Thursday, Asia’s 20 weakest teams, according to FIFA’s rankings, meet in 10 two-legged ties with the return matches taking place next week. The winners progress to the second round, a group stage, which will mean six more games against tougher opposition and the potential for more.
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Games and revenue are what both Yemen and Sri Lanka desperately need.
Sri Lanka, at 202nd in the world, are the lowest-ranked team in Asia and have just had a FIFA ban over governance issues lifted.
Meanwhile, 156th-ranked Yemen may be turning a corner after years of chaos and conflict.
The Yemeni national team are 180 minutes away from the second round of World Cup qualification and a group containing the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and either Nepal or Laos.
Finishing in the top two among that opposition would not be impossible for Yemen and would provide entry into the final stage, where the best 18 teams on the continent compete to take one of Asia’s eight automatic World Cup spots – an increase of four from 2022.
For Yemen, to even get close is a dream. And even dreaming is a step in the right direction.
“Progression to the group stage would mean another opportunity to play very demanding, high-quality international matches and would offer very important experience for the players,” Yemen’s coach, Miroslav Soukup, told Al Jazeera.
“We know how important it is.”
Despite the low ranking of Yemen’s South Asian opposition, the Czech boss is not taking anything for granted.
“Sri Lanka have fundamentally strengthened the national team by engaging players from overseas who are playing in quality competitions, so it will be very difficult to succeed,” he said.
Even so, Yemen are the favourites. The 57-year-old coach returned for a second spell in November, hopeful that developments off the pitch would help bring success on it.
‘A positive step’
In 2014, fighters from the Houthi armed group took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen to fight the Houthis, bringing eight years of conflict that has devastated the nation.
There has been an estimated death toll of more than 370,000 with 227,000 of those coming from hunger, unsafe water and a lack of healthcare.
Amid such turmoil, the domestic league has not played. There have been unofficial games and cup competitions watched by large crowds in pockets of the country but little regular and consistent football.
“There is no doubt that the level of football will drop if there are no regular games,” former national team player, Mohammed Salem Al-Zuriqi, now assistant coach, told Al Jazeera.
A ceasefire brokered in April 2022 has largely held even though hostile groups control different parts of the country.
“There are still massive challenges and problems, but at least there is a chance for football to start,” Soukup said.
A new league made up of 14 teams kicked off its season in early October. The teams are split into two groups of seven, one based in Sanaa and another in the eastern city of Seiyun to cut down on travelling.
It is a case of so far, so good with some games watched by big crowds, including the minister of sports and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives attending the opening round.
“This is a very positive step,” Soukup said. “The war has been hugely difficult for people, and football has been a secondary thing for a long time, but I believe that the situation is gradually getting better in terms of people’s lives, and this will also improve the football situation.”
The national team has long been unable to play on home soil. For the past few years, the national team has relied on overseas training camps and help from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen will host Sri Lanka in Saudi Arabia on Thursday. It is not ideal, but there are hopes that Yemenis living in the neighbouring country will come out and support the team. There is not yet a debate as to whether it is possible to play at home.
“I do not think that the Yemeni national team will be able to play at home any time soon because the political problem still exists and there does not seem to be a solution in the near future,” Al-Zuriqi said.
“But we have hope that one day we will have a safe area for the national team to play in Yemen.”
Getting as far as possible in World Cup qualification would not just be valuable experience for the players but also worth millions of dollars to the Yemen Football Association, which is in desperate need of funds to improve and rebuild facilities.
The national team’s home Al-Thawra Sports City Stadium in Sanaa has been hit by missiles on multiple occasions after allegations that it was being used to store weapons.
“Stadiums have been damaged during the fighting and can’t be used,” Al-Zuriqi said.
“The improvement of the security and economic situation in 2023 will benefit football through the return of sports competitions and means that players can play again and fans can watch.”
There may still be a long way to go, but there is still some hope for the future, and not just for the game with Sri Lanka.
If a full league season can be completed, that would be a major step forward, bringing a sense of normality as well as much-needed games.
“If the league starts to be played regularly in Yemen and the players currently playing abroad regularly start in their teams, it will have a big impact on performance as early as next year,” Soukup said.
“We have greatly rejuvenated the senior team, in which 70 percent of players are under 23. It is the same with the under-23 team, which has an average age of less than 21.”
A lack of cash means that the under-23 team has been the focus of the federation this year.
“We haven’t had a camp for the senior team since January because we don’t have two sets of coaching staff,” Soukup said.
“I am responsible for the preparation of both teams, and the under-23s had priority with the West Asian Games in June, then qualification for the Asian U23 Championship in Vietnam in September.”
The team missed out on Asian U23 Championship qualification by the narrowest of margins: defeating Singapore and Guam before losing 1-0 to hosts Vietnam. Had Yemen scored just one more goal over the three games, it would have been enough to qualify for the tournament.
Now, however, it is all about the World Cup. Getting past Sri Lanka into the second round would be a step in the right direction and another sign that, for long-suffering football fans in Yemen, better times may be around the corner.