It was on 20 September 2002, nearly 14 years ago, that Yemen’s U-17 side scored one of the biggest achievements in the country’s footballing history, beating China PR in the semi-finals of the AFC Championship in the age group. In doing so, the Yemenis qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Finland 2003, the only FIFA event the country has ever taken part in.
Though they collected a solitary point in their three matches at the world finals, Amen Al Sunaini’s side acquitted themselves well in a very challenging Group C. In their opening match they ran the then European champions Portugal close, going down 4-3, before earning a 1-1 draw with Cameroon, who were the reigning African champions at the time. In their final match, Yemen lost 3-0 to Brazil, who went on to beat Spain in the final. Despite finishing last, they could take pride in their efforts.
Recalling that competition in an interview with FIFA.com, coach Al Sunaini said: “There are some happy memories for the people of Yemen. We were pleased and proud of the team’s performance in the finals and I hope we made our mark on the history of Yemeni football.”
Al Sunaini, who was 38 at the time of Finland 2003, looked back on his charges’ three-match campaign: “Qualifying for the World Cup is an honour for any coach, player and federation. We were the only Arab side at the tournament and I was very proud to be taking part. We were in a tight group with two continental champions in Cameroon and Portugal, and Brazil, the eventual winners of the competition. They were three very tough games for us.”
Fresh challenges ahead Al Sunaini will be hoping to repeat that final appearance, 14 years on at the U-17 World Cup India 2017. Their chance to get there will come at this year’s AFC U-16 Championship, also to be held in India, from 15 September to 2 October 2016.
Speaking of his hopes for the regional finals, the Yemen coach said: “The coaching staff, the national association and the players are hoping to repeat the experience of Finland 2003 and reach the U-17 world finals once more. That said, the situation is totally different now because of the insecurity in Yemen, which impacts on every aspect of life, including football. All the same, we really want to achieve something for Yemeni football and our fans.”
Al Sunaini’s side have been drawn in Group D at the Asian finals, along with Korea DPR, Uzbekistan and Thailand. Looking ahead to the challenge Yemen will face against three supposedly superior sides, he said: “They are stronger than us on paper, but nothing is impossible in football. We’ll be doing everything we can despite the modest resources at our disposal and the lack of time we’ve had to prepare. We are ambitious and we believe in our players. They have plenty of promise, and I hope we can come away with some positive results.”
Sizing up his side’s opponents, he added: “Korea DPR and Uzbekistan are the last two winners of the U-16 Asian Championship and they’re the two favourites to qualify from the group. Thailand are every bit as strong, which means we have the least chance of going through. We want to cause an upset, though.”
Explaining the problems his team face ahead of the regional competition and the impact they will have on their chances of making it to India 2017, the Yemen coach said: “We qualified for the Asian finals at the very last minute, when Kuwait were suspended. We’re lucky to be here really.
“That’s affected our preparations, not to mention the war that’s afflicting our country and which has put a complete halt to all sporting events. I hope, nevertheless, that we can get the results we’re looking for, thanks to the support of the national federation and the country’s footballing chiefs.”
Who knows, Yemen and Al Sunaini’s late invitation to the AFC finals could mark the start of an exciting run to India 2017, 14 years on from the last time they graced the international stage.