Following a lengthy absence from official competition the Yemen national side are all set to make their comeback at the end of this week in the Saudi city of Jeddah, when coach Sami Al Nash will lead his charges out for their opening game in the Arab Cup of Nations.

The country’s last appearance at an international tournament was in July last year during the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, when their Brazil 2014 campaign was ended by Iraq.

As he prepares his side for their first competitive game in nearly a year, spoke to Yemen coach Sami Al Nash about the road back to top-flight contention and his desire to see Yemen prove themselves at the highest level once again.

Hurdles to success
There is no denying that football has been another victim of Yemen’s political unrest. In the AFC Cup, the country’s clubs have had their scheduled home games hosted in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq, while Al Nash has been forced to ready his troops with nothing but friendly matches and a training camp based outside Yemen.

The team needs a bit of time to find its feet. I want us to use these next few games to restore the reputation of Yemeni football.

Sami Al Nash, Yemen coach.

But is a couple of games against Egypt’s Olympic squad and a third against Palestine this Monday going to be enough? The coach is honest about the challenge ahead: “Being out of official competition for so long is obviously going to affect how the we play as a team. Our last game was a World Cup qualifier against Iraq so it’s been quite a while!”

There is still cause for optimism, though, with the 55-year-old looking to the long-term. “We’ve brought in a lot of new, young faces,” he explained, “and now the team needs a bit of time to find its feet. I want us to use these next few games to restore the reputation of Yemeni football.” 

Gaining experience
The comeback begins this Saturday with Yemen’s Arab Cup of Nations’ encounter against Libya, followed three days later by a clash with Bahrain before they round off their Group B matches on June 29 against Morocco.

It will not be the easiest reintroduction to the pressures of competitive international football, but Al Nash seems to be taking it in his stride. “I hope we can put on a good performance,” he said, “even though it’s a tough group. We’re happy about it, though, because playing the difficult games is excellent preparation for the upcoming Gulf Cup of Nations.”

As for their opponents, the coach is suitably respectful: “We haven’t seen that much of Libya and Morocco but they’ve obviously got a great football heritage and are a notch above us in quality. It's sure to be a tricky assignment.”

“That said, we are still going to benefit from the experience,” he added: “The tournament has teams from both Asia and Africa so I’m expecting the players will learn a lot.”

Looking forward
Yemen has long been known for the success of its youth teams, most notably winning the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland. The tradition remains strong, with the country recently qualifying for the finals of the AFC U-16 Championship to be held later this year in Iran, which makes the failures of Yemen’s senior side even harder to understand.

Al Nash has first hand experience of the country’s youth game. Four years ago he led the U-16 side to the AFC Championship in Uzbekistan and he believes he understands the nature of the problem.

“We have such promising young talent in Yemen,” he insisted, “but unfortunately we don’t look after the players. They aren’t trained up properly, nor looked after financially, and this is the main reason why good results dry up in the men’s game.”

Al Orouba’s encouraging progress to the group stages of the AFC Cup has given Al Nash hope that Yemeni football is genuinely on its way back.

“Al Orouba played really well,” he said proudly: “It was quite a surprise to everyone. We want to keep improving our standards and prove to the world that Yemeni football is in good shape!”