14 Oct 2017

Coach inspiring players in war-torn Yemen

News Article

By Leigh Walsh


SOFIA, BULGARIA: Osamah Almaqaleh grew up in a football-team family, as he likes to call them. Four boys, six girls and his mother make up the starting XI. His Dad? “The coach of course,” he smiles.

Osamah hasn’t had a lot to smile about of late. Yemen, the country he calls home, has been brought to its knees by conflict. With borders blocked and countless killed, disease and hunger have left millions on the brink of famine and a nation shattered.

But while the future may be a distant place for many, at a dusty tennis complex in the rebel-stronghold of Sanaa, coach Osamah is teaching children to dream.

“We’re located just one kilometre from the presidential palace which is always targeted by the air jets,” he explains. “Sometimes we hear the jets and they bomb next to us. We stop, we take the kids in, and when we hear no more we’re back.

“Some of the courts were affected by flashes but the war did not stop us and it will not stop us.”

If Osamah sounds impressively resolute, that’s because he is. After all, it took him the best part of two weeks to navigate his way to Bulgaria where he has spent the last week attending the 20th edition of the ITF Worldwide Coaches Conference by BNP Paribas.

Getting here wasn’t easy.

Extended a grant by the International Tennis Federation to help him travel, Osamah had a logistical problem. The only current flight path out of Yemen is from the eastern city of Seiyun to Jordan and so he embarked on a 24-hour bus journey across the war zone, stopping at checkpoints marshalled by armed guards from both sides of the divide, fielding questions, and fearing for what may lie ahead.

“Some were telling me, ‘why are you going to do sports things? Stay here and fight!’ But all these difficulties didn’t stop me.”

As he relays the story at the Hotel Marinela in Sofia, Osamah opens a picture of the plane ticket on his phone, secured after a two-week wait for a visa in Jordan and snapped in anticipation to send to Amir Borghei, the ITF’s Development Officer for West and Central Asia who was concerned. He need not have been. Osamah was on his way.

“It’s my first Worldwide,” he beamed. “[Amir] has supported us during this period, even with all the circumstances we have been through. He is always in touch, pushing us forward and supporting us. I really want to thank him.”

In a time when child soldiers are being recruited in terrifying numbers, Osamah has a vision. He wants to inspire with rackets, and the pride he takes in Yemen’s talented young players is palpable. He lists them off… “We have Ghassan Alansi, he was 290 in ITF juniors. Amer Abdo, who was ranked 400 and something. Many players have won Asian tournaments and we have a player in an American college. They all passed through this programme. It’s really working very well.”

Is it mainly boys? “No, no. We have boys and girls. Shaema Al-Olfi, she has won many Asian tournaments. She won the West Asian development championships for under 13. Twice!”

Sending teams to tournaments in neighbouring countries is getting trickier for the Yemen Tennis Federation, although they are still managing to. The most talented players are from the poorest families, Osamah explains, and with financial strings tightening and the war suffocating the obstacles are growing. In fact, Osamah, like many others in Yemen who depend on state wages has seen his salary go largely unpaid of late.

“Not only me, other coaches too,” he said. “All the staff are working because of the love of the game. It’s not because of the money. We know that the country cannot pay us now, but we are still working.”

If Osamah’s belief ever wobbles he takes motivation from the very players he’s attempting to steer. At a tournament in Qatar, he watched on as his team ducked with fear as commercial planes flew overhead. “Then they just realised they are not in Yemen anymore,” he sighed. “This really hurt me so much. Seeing them getting scared before realising they are far, far away.”

Osamah is a tennis fan. His favourite player? “Roger Federer, of course,” he answers with the look of a man who has just been asked to solve one plus one. “But I am really loving the new generation too: Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, a lot of players. I watched them play each other in the China Open last week.”

What hopes then does this tennis-lover from a war-torn nation hold for the future?

“I would love to see Yemen hosting an international event. In 2014 we were about to host an Asian event, it was the first to happen in the country. We prepared everything.”

But then the situation deteriorated. With demonstrations growing along the airport road and parents from Syria and Jordan concerned about the safety of their children, the tournament was cancelled at a week’s notice. By 2015, Yemen was engulfed in war.

“At the beginning we were scared,” he said. “Now we are used to it.”

Osamah Almaqaleh will need to wait a while for his dream to be realised.

Osamah is one of 50 coaches attending the Worldwide Coaches Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria with help from ITF grants. Development of the game around the globe is one of the key strands of ITF2024, the long-term plan for sustainable growth, and coaches play a key role.