We look at Bahrain's bid to make it to the FIFA World Cup
Time Out Bahrain staff
While the sporting world’s attention this month turns to World Cup qualification, most will focus on the well-worn stories in Europe and South America. But in the Middle East two rivalries will face off in what is shaping up to be one of the most important, not to mention heated, matches in the region’s history.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain play each other first in Manama on September 5, then the return tie on September 9 in Riyadh, in a two-legged World Cup playoff. The Saudis lord it over their neighbours by virtue of their greater footballing success, and have qualified for every World Cup tournament since 1994. Can Bahrain really put up a fight this time?
Saudi Arabia – The Falcons The Kingdom has long been a footballing powerhouse in the region. To start with they have the oldest professional league in the Middle East and have made themselves regulars at the World Cup finals, qualifying for the past four tournaments. Their excellent record inevitably ends when they actually get there (how can anyone forget the 8-0 mauling they received at the hands of Germany in 2002?), but they remain one of the few Asian teams to have made the knockout stages, as they did at USA ’94. This campaign, the Falcons have badly struggled, but an unlikely victory against Iran in Tehran, shortly after the arrival of Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro, saw their fortunes change. But do they have the stamina for the final stretch?
Bahrain – The Red Bahrain has been here before. The tiny island nation came within an inch of qualifying for the 2006 finals after losing another World Cup playoff to Trinidad & Tobago in Manama. Many thought it was a once in a lifetime achievement that would never be repeated. But veteran coach Milan Macala has performed miracles, and once again brought them to within touching distance of South Africa. If they make it, Bahrain will go down in history as the smallest nation ever to make the finals. The numbers mean that talent is harder to come by, but Bahrain has, remarkably, reared a good crop of talented footballers. While the Saudis are loath to let their star players into the ‘corrupting’ leagues of the West, Bahrain’s squad has been under scrutiny from teams in Belgium, Turkey and Holland. Jaycee John, the naturalised striker who plays in Belgium’s Juniper League, is a case in point.
The key players
Yasser Al Qahtani (Saudi Arabia) The phenomenally talented striker has long been a star for club and country, scoring at more than a goal every other game at international level. The former Asian Footballer of the Year looked set to make a big money move to the UK Premier League at the start of last season, before deciding to stay in Saudi; not surprising given the reluctance many players have to leaving the country and playing abroad. That Manchester City and Chelsea were prepared to stump up the cash for him tells you just how talented Al Qahtani is. Jaycee John (Bahrain) After the crushing failure of not making Germany 2006, the Bahrainis rebuilt their team and injected new blood in the shape of powerful striker Jaycee John. A naturalised Nigerian, John will be the only player on the pitch that plies their trade in a European league.
Jose Peseiro (Saudi Arabia) The latest in a long line of coaches that have spoken Portuguese, Peseiro is a manager with unfulfilled potential rather than a safe pair of international hands. A contemporary of that other great Portuguese Jose, Mourinho, Peseiro was briefly at Real Madrid before taking charge of Sporting Lisbon with mixed success. Still, he did manage to save the Saudi’s campaign by orchestrating a stunning victory in hostile Tehran…
Milan Macala (Bahrain) The Czech tactician knows the Middle East better than almost anyone in the game. Over his long career he has coached all over the region from Oman to Saudi to the UAE. This, however, is likely his last shot at taking a team to the World Cup finals.
Did you know?
The confusion over why a player as talented as Yasser Al Qahtani never signed to the Premier League might well be cleared up by a newspaper story from the UK last year. The Mirror reported that Qahtani had gotten a little bit too big for his boots when he went on a trial at Manchester City. ‘He arrived at the City training ground like a prince, and when he took part in his first training session, the members of his entourage lined the length of the touchline cheering his every move,’ recalled former City goalkeeper and TV pundit John Burridge. ‘When he got the ball, Richard Dunne smacked Al Qahtani with a good old-fashioned “welcome” tackle, and he fell to the ground like a bag of chips. He started rolling around, squealing, and had to be carried off the field. Then he started crying.’ Needless to say, City didn’t make a bid.
And as exciting as this campaign has been for the Bahrainis, it’s nothing compared to the controversy that followed their last when they again made the playoffs. The Red had made themselves unpopular by defeating Uzbekistan with the help of a controversial refereeing mistake. Their first leg defeat was chalked off after the Japanese referee made a technical error when he ordered a free kick instead of a retaken penalty when the Uzbeks encroached on the Bahraini box. FIFA ordered that the result be scrubbed off and the match replayed, much to the anger of the Uzbeks. Bahrain qualified by a single goal in what must be one of the most bizarre quirks of fate in World Cup history. Bahrain plays Saudi Arabia in Manama (September 5, 10pm) and Riyadh (September 9, 10.15pm) as part of a two-legged playoff. The overall winner then plays New Zealand and will have to beat them in order to secure a World Cup place.