Gulf Cup gives Yemenis cause to celebrate

Pre-tournament security fears have been allayed and the football has galvanised the country.

Emirati women cheer for their national team during their 20th Gulf Cup football match against Oman in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on November 26, 2010. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB
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ADEN // Deliriously waving a UAE flag in one hand and with another decorating her scarf, Intisar Abdu, a Yemeni university student, stood among thousands of Emirati and Yemeni fans on Monday to wildly cheer the Emirates' national football team who beat Bahrain to make it to the semi-finals of the Gulf Cup.

"I am supporting the Emirati team because we love the Emiratis," said Abdu who was wrapped in black abaya and sitting among a large crowd of female fans. The supporters were also carrying pictures of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE.

The unprecedented female presence in the stadiums has been considered one of the remarkable features of the tournament.

"I have dreamed of the day in which I would go to a football stadium and back footballers," said Maha Qassim, a 30-year-old Yemeni fan.

"This dream has become true in this tournament.

"I have been to the matches and carried the flags and waved for our national team and others. I am happy about this new experience."

The UAE team will play Saudi Arabia tomorrow, while Iraq face Kuwait for a place in the final to be played on Sunday.

Ismail al Hammadi, the UAE player, said they would work hard to make it to the final.

"Winning is what we sought in our match with Bahrain. It is difficult to forecast the next matches for the level of the teams are close. The next one is important and we will try to win," the Al Ahli midfielder, said.

Never in the 40 years of its history has the Gulf Cup - into its 20th tournament - been reeling under uncertainty and security threats like this one. But, by the final whistle of the opening match between the Yemeni and Saudi Arabia national teams, in which the hosts were beaten 4-0, the fears and concerns of any security breach had started to vanish gradually.

The poor country, plagued with a myriad of security challenges, has been able to disperse the international and Gulf concerns and prove itself to be a fine host for the eight-nation tournament.

In the run-up to the competition, the government launched an unprecedented security operation involving more than 30,000 soldiers to ensure that the security situation was under control.

Police were deployed on all the port city of Aden's main thoroughfares as well as around the stadium and team hotels. Police vehicles can be seen stationed at the main roundabouts or patrolling the streets. With this tight security, no security breaches have been reported so far, according to interior ministry reports.

"We have not encountered any security problem so far. We have been using explosives-detection dogs at the stadiums and hotels. We survey the halls before each press conference or any meeting," said Abdullah al Afif, the leader of the explosive-detecting dogs' team at the media centre.

Despite the security fears many Gulf citizens, including Emiratis, made their way to Aden and Abyan to watch the matches.

"I have come here to see the matches and support our national team. The security situation is completely normal and there is no fear or worry," said Abdulraoof al Shaibani, an Emirati, while he was rolling the UAE flag around his head, sitting next to his two boys and Reem, a three-year-old niece whose cheek was adorned with the colours of the UAE flag.

"I am very happy that we reached the semi-finals. I was worried about losing the match which would have meant we are out of the game.

"I will attend all the matches and support our team until the end."

Ibrahim Ali, an Emirati journalist, said: "The security fears have been overblown by the media. The reality on the ground is absolutely different.

"We are able to move around with complete flexibility; the atmosphere is sporting and the big number of fans and good organisation are all making the tournament a success.

"This is my first visit to Yemen but I am thinking to come back."

This impression, mirrored by many of the Gulf citizens attending the event, has evoked a sense of pride among Yemenis. The widespread enthusiasm created by the tournament has swept aside economic woes, security fears and other worries.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, had been quoted by the state media as saying that Yemen had achieved a "political and moral win" by managing to host a smoothly run event.

Zaid al Nahari, the tournament's assistant manager, added that doubt about Yemen's ability to arrange the championship and speculation about the security situation acted as a motivating factor to all those involved in organising the competition.

"The speculations and doubts about the inability of Yemen to organise the event have been a strong force for all of us. People were up to the challenge either as government or even citizens," al Nahari said.

In addition to juggling an insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south, the Yemeni government is struggling to combat a resurgent wing of al Qa'eda.

The ability of Yemen to leave all these challenges behind and focus on making the event a success should, according to al Nahari, work towards changing the image of Yemen to the outside world.

"This is a big triumph for Yemen which was shown in a different way.

"We have proved that we are a civilised and a hospitable society by nature; we should realise that sport can do a lot to market the country well outside and we should seize this opportunity to build on what we have achieved in this championship," he said.