Newcastle United: How Saudi takeover is affecting football in Yemen

“I knew it was bullshit right away,” Adam recalls. “My brother had barely even touched the ball before this random Saudi guy in a suit was offering him a whole other life in England.”

The scout had only watched Adam’s brother play football for about 10 minutes before saying how he’d be a great fit for the Premier League. And he smelled a rat.

“He even tried to spin it by saying that my brother would be able to give back to his family by leaving. It was crazy,” he adds.

Adam (not his real name to protect his identity) retired from playing professional football himself after the Yemeni League was cancelled seven years ago due to the civil war and has witnessed a shift when it comes to football culture in the region. The mysterious scout’s overtures are a symptom of that, an indication of what has changed.

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“When I first started playing football, players were proud to play in this league,” Adam says. “And that’s not just here in Yemen. All over the Arab world, the best would stay and compete in their country. Now, all everyone wants to do is get out at any cost.”

As someone who has been the sole breadwinner of his family since he was 17 years old, Adam loved playing football growing up and by his early teens, it was clear to everyone he had the talent to make football his career.

“Watching the Yemeni national team was all I did as a kid,” he remembers. “Looking back, it was probably unhealthy the way I used to idolise those guys.”

He eventually did make it to the top, enjoying a long career in the Yemeni league and a stint with the national team. After retirement, he took up coaching.

Like most jobs in Yemen, coaching doesn’t pay all the bills, especially in a war-torn country with no professional leagues currently playing. It’s been especially tough given the collapse of the Yemeni rial against foreign currencies last summer.

Because of this, Adam has had to take up several other jobs to make ends meet and help provide for himself and his family.

“Life in this country is so bleak. I feel empty all the time, like I’m simply going through the motions of living,” he says, his voice choking up over the phone.

“I have happy moments, of course, with my family, my friends and the boys that I coach. But I cannot imagine myself being happy again in this country. The damage is not fixable. Which is sad because this is my home. The only one I’ve ever known.”

The damage that he’s mentioning has been caused by the ongoing multi-sided Yemeni Civil War.

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The civil war began in late 2014; however, it is widely considered to be an extension of the struggle for influence in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a conflict that has been ongoing for more than 40 years.

Yemen has been caught in the crossfires of two nations. And the result has been a mass displacement of more than four million citizens, a famine that affected more than half of the country’s population and an increase in the human trafficking of women and children as reported by the United Nations. To that backdrop, football has become incredibly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

But despite the fact Yemen doesn’t have an illustrious footballing history, the sport is so ingrained in the culture of the country.

So naturally, it made headlines when a business company owned by the Saudi Arabian government’s sovereign wealth fund bought Newcastle United.

“Everyone watches the Premier League here,” Adam says. “Sure, we watch [other] European leagues as well, but not with as much interest. Some football fans here could name the entire squad list of all 20 Premier League teams. I don’t think I could name a single Spanish club outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid.”

Throughout the civil war, Saudi Arabia-led military, with the backing of several other nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, has intervened in Yemen to fight against Iran-backed rebels.

In May 2020, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that 80% of the Yemeni population – more than 24 million people – are in need of humanitarian assistance due to the actions of Saudi Arabia’s government.

And what might be considered the worst crime of all is the fact the Saudi Arabian government has slowly attempted to trick the world into turning its head away from its war crimes. Scouting these Yemeni youngsters is just one of many examples.

Adam has coached across his city in Yemen, from under-9s to under-23s. He’s seen first-hand how little physical support the players get from family and friends, simply because they don’t have the time.

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“For the past decade, I’ve coached football and gone to my brother’s football matches as a spectator,” he tells The Set Pieces. “Almost no one shows up to support these kids except a parent or an older sibling every now and then. I don’t blame them, obviously, but when all of a sudden, these men in suits more expensive than what I earn in a month are showing up and asking questions about these 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old boys, it’s going to attract attention.”

The men in question are Saudi scouts. Adam is adamant he knows this for a fact due to their dialect (there are more than 25 dialects of Arabic, with considerable variations from country to country), despite the men not revealing where they are from. And after some further questioning, Adam found out they were there to find young footballers and help develop them in the UK.

These scouts, according to Adam, tell the kids they can fulfil their dreams of becoming the next Premier League star, an opportunity that any aspiring Yemeni footballer would dream of, given the league’s popularity.

“The funny thing is, they don’t even properly watch them play football,” Adam adds. “They’ve offered this so-called opportunity to all the players I’ve coached and all the players on my brothers’ team. Surely that isn’t proper scouting.

“Listen, I love my brother and all my players. I want them to be as successful as possible. But none of them really have the talents to make it abroad,” Adam half jokes. “And that’s fine. There is just no need to be selling them this false hope.”

These scouts have only been showing up to these matches within the past year or so, and they have visited more frequently ever since the takeover was confirmed. Adam has no clue whether any of the players have taken the scouts up on their offers.

“I worry for these kids,” he admits. “I’ve told my brother to say no regardless of what is promised. But some of these kids don’t have anyone looking out for them. All they have is family who are waiting for any opportunity to get out.

“Little do they know that these men work for those who have killed their brothers and sisters.”

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It’s unclear whether these scouts could actually be successful and somehow produce the first ever Yemeni star within the world of football and make him successful in the Premier League. Adam is unconvinced.

Regardless, the people of Yemen will find it extremely difficult to put aside their trauma and fully allow themselves to root for a player who has been given opportunities by the Saudi government.

“I’d rather be piss poor than ever sell myself out to the unholy institution that is Saudi Arabia,” says Adam, his voice angry now, to the point where he’s almost spitting out the words.

“They’ve ruined the life of every single person living in this country. I would never trust them with what remains of my life.”

Newcastle United: How Saudi takeover is affecting football in Yemen
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