Page last updated at 12:08 GMT, Saturday, 27 November 2010

Gulf Cup terror fears no match for football in Yemen

Thousands of Yemenis at first match
Thousands of Yemenis turned up for the first game of the Gulf Cup

By Justin Marozzi
Yemen

Despite international fears of terror attacks, Yemen is proving itself to be a perfect host for an eight-nation football tournament on the Arabian Peninsula.

When I told a friend I was off to Yemen for the Gulf Cup of Nations football tournament in Aden, he asked me if I was insane. He was not alone.

According to one newspaper, this was "the most dangerous region of the most dangerous country on earth".

The headline in an American magazine expressed the reaction of many: "Al-Qaeda bombings, drive-by shootings and penalty kicks - what are they thinking?"

Man with camel at opening Gulf Cup ceremony
Kuwait and Bahrain took some convincing to join the tournament

I asked another friend, a distinguished sports writer, if he fancied a few days out in the Gulf. Out of the question, he said. His wife would not let him go.

On the surface it seemed only reasonable to question the wisdom of staging an international football tournament in the heartland of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

And for once this was not a uniquely Western view. Some of Yemen's neighbours had their doubts, too.

There were wobbles from Kuwait and Bahrain, before they decided to grin and bear it and join the six other Gulf countries in Aden.

A Yemeni friend told me of the Arab tourism minister who had got the jitters and frantically prepared a will before his flight to Yemen.

"Then I got here," he said later, "and on my first day in Aden I found myself wandering through the streets at two in the morning, speaking to people, eating outside in restaurants thoroughly enjoying myself. I was completely comfortable."

Electric atmosphere

You have to wonder what the Iraqi footballers, who have lived through an inferno of violence since 2003, made of all the fuss.

Saudi team supporter with flag
Women at the Yemen vs Saudi Arabia match were the noisiest supporters

In the run-up to the tournament the government launched an unprecedented security operation involving more than 30,000 soldiers.

That did not mean people were not worried about the opening ceremony and the match that followed it, Yemen versus Saudi Arabia.

What chance an al-Qaeda spectacular?

I watched the game in the city's main stadium, packed way beyond its capacity of 30,000.

In scenes that made Western security experts wince, fans crowded up and down gangways, sat and stood and danced on the stadium's outer rim and filled every space available.

The women, wrapped in black abayas, were easily the noisiest, cheering wildly and waving the national red, black and white flags of Yemen deliriously.

A few rows down from me was a boisterous Saudi fan surrounded by Yemenis.

From time to time he broke into exuberant song, waving his green-and-white Saudi flag.

Each time his team scored, he jumped up and started dancing and yelling in glee.

Yemen's Ali Mohammed Nono (10) vies for the ball against Saudi Arabia's Taysir Jaber (17)
More than 30,000 people turned up to see Yemen take on Saudi Arabia

His celebrations would have struck most British observers as provocative. I could not help cringing.

If he was not careful, I thought, this triumphalist Saudi would end up being lynched by insulted home fans.

In England, he would not have lasted long. But then in England he would not have been standing with rival fans in the first place.

The Yemenis, however, saluted him and joined in with his songs. The atmosphere was electric, the joy infectious.

Yemen has been confounding foreign visitors like this for centuries.

The birthplace of Arab civilisation has seen a succession of foreigners come and go: the Portuguese, Ottomans, British and Russians have all been bamboozled by a famously complex country.

I certainly was not expecting to see a statue of Queen Victoria in her pomp proudly displayed in one of Aden's public parks. So much for al-Qaeda's heartland.

For their part, Yemenis do not always understand the outside world, either.

Map of Yemen

They are slightly baffled by the reaction to the parcel bomb that was not, al-Qaeda's failed plot hatched in Yemen to down a US-bound cargo plane. It strikes them as Western hysteria.

In the end, the only thing spectacular about the opening evening of the tournament was the result, a thumping 4-0 thrashing by the Saudis.

Link to qat?

Yemenis love their football but, like English football fans, have grown used to a team that traditionally disappoints.

Some commentators have attributed the poor performance of Yemeni footballers to the chewing of qat leaves, the mildly hallucinogenic, amphetamine-like stimulant that is legal in Yemen - and in the UK - and reportedly consumed by 72% of men here.

Lunchtime sees most of the country dashing into the nearest market to buy the freshest leaves, returning home with the tell-tale red plastic bags stuffed full of foliage.

Once the football is over, I plan to do the same. A friend in Sanaa has invited me for a quiet afternoon chew. Not something to tell the wife about.

That would be letting the qat out of the bag.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website



SEE ALSO
Two Yemen bombings strike Aden
13 Oct 10 |  Middle East
Yemen country profile
07 Jun 11 |  Country profiles


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific