Even underdogs like Yemen have their moment in the sun. Despite narrowly losing out 2-1 to regional heavyweights Japan earlier this year in their opening qualifying round for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, the Gulf side bounced back a week later to register a 1-0 home win over Hong Kong to keep their campaign well on track.
The solitary-goal win may not be among the most significant victories that Yemen can boast at international level, but the result enabled the south Arabian peninsula nation to soar up seven places to 146 in February's FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking. More importantly, this victory marked Yemen's first win in eight international matches over the past nine months, a good sign suggesting that the Yemenis have begun the New Year brightly.
The lowest placed West Asian side in the global pecking order, Yemen has long been outsiders in regional and continental competitions. Their disappointing campaign in the recent Gulf Cup, where they received the wooden spoon after picking up three straight defeats in the group stage, well illustrates the gap that exists between them and the regions best.
Despite their status as Asia's perennial minnows, the Yemenis have never given up efforts to raise their game and to challenge the big boys. Not surprisingly, they have developed a habit of causing an upset. The first time they made such an impression came in Asia's qualifying for the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, when Yemen was pitted against the likes of Iraq, China, Jordan and Pakistan.
The campaign lasted just one month but in that time Yemen pulled off two wins, including a stunning 1-0 triumph over China. Although eliminated after finishing third, Yemen was rewarded with a 25-place move up the global pecking order to 90 in August 1993, their highest ever position.
Sixteen years on, under Sami Al Nash, the team has embarked on qualifying for their first AFC Asian Cup appearance since 1976. The team demonstrated they could still challenge the continent's best after narrowly failing to secure a draw away to Japan in their opener. The East Asians took the early lead through Shinji Okazaki but the Yemenis struck back hard, Zaher Farid leveling the game two minutes into the second half. Japan, the three-time Asian champions who are 109 places above Yemen in the world ranking, struggled in the remaining time and only had their blushes saved courtesy of a late goal by Tatsuya Tanaka.
Back to their Ali Mohsen Al-Muraisi Stadium at Sana'a, Al Nash's outfit entered the second qualifying game against Hong Kong determined to win. After squandering a handful of chances in front of goal, Akram Al Selwi scored the game's only goal seven minutes into the second half to hand the hosts a well-deserved triumph. For coach Al Nash, the victory offered a timely boost for the team ahead of November's head-to-head meetings with Bahrain, who lead the group with two opening wins over Hong Kong and Japan.
"I'm happy we have registered our first win in the qualifiers because it will regain the confidence of the players," Al Nash exclaimed. "I promise we will continue with the same good performance and progress towards the right direction."
Taking into account Yemen's impressive form recently, even the most pessimistic fans believe that their team are capable of making waves in the continental competition. Although a place at the finals may look beyond their grasp, Al Nash and his charges have shown that they are a team no opponent should underestimate.