Bahrain play the last of their 2010 World Cup qualifiers this month. Time Out looks at their journey so far
Time Out Bahrain staff
Manama, October 2005. Amid a hail of plastic bottles, Bahrain’s football team lies scattered across the pitch of the National Stadium. Some players are slumped, others stand with their hands on their hips. One appears to be crying, photographers buzzing around his prone, disconsolate figure as the enormity of the team’s failure sinks in. On the other side of the pitch the opposition embarks in a frenzied, euphoric celebration.
The full house begins to drift away, a palpable mixture of anger and incredulity being dragged with them into the night, as it too dawns on them that they had perhaps just witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Bahrain qualify for the World Cup finals. After one of the most bizarre and controversial qualification campaigns in recent years, and after a mammoth 17, it was a single goal by Trinidad & Tobago’s Dennis Lawrence that saw Bahrain fall at the final hurdle. It was the Trinidadians who would be represented at Germany 2006.
It was a remarkable achievement that Bahrain even got this far, to within one match, one goal of the finals. Bahrain, after all, is a country with a population of just 700,000. They would have easily been the smallest nation to have ever qualified for the world’s most watched sporting tournament. You could be forgiven for thinking that the narrow miss was a once-in-a-generation thing. Most who were there that night thought the same. But, amazingly, Bahrain has a chance of going one better than it did in 2005.
This month sees Bahrain play two crucial World Cup qualifiers, firstly against Australia in Sydney on June 10 before a crunch game against Uzbekistan in Manama on June 17. Two wins could see them qualify automatically, but a point may be enough for third place, setting up an all-Middle Eastern playoff against arch rivals Saudi Arabia, with the winner playing Oceania’s champions, New Zealand. It’s complicated, and there are potentially six more matches for the hardworking Bahrainis to navigate, but they have been here before, have the experience, and will be desperate for another shot at the World Cup.
It’s ironic that the team initially standing in the way of Bahrain is Uzbekistan. In 2005 the two sides met in an ill-tempered playoff to decide who would play Trinidad & Tobago. The first leg in Tashkent, which the Uzbeks won 1-0, was wiped out after FIFA ordered the match be replayed when it emerged that the referee had made a technical error. The referee, Toshimitsu Yoshida, had awarded a 38th minute penalty for the home side, but astonishingly he decided to award a free kick when an Uzbek player encroached in the penalty box.
The Uzbeks were livid that their slender advantage had been wiped out, accusing FIFA of ‘stealing’ their legitimate goal. ‘The referee stole our second goal and now FIFA is stealing our first goal,’ Alisher Nikimbaev from the Uzbek Football Association told the world’s media. ‘It’s not fair for our team. If they want to replay this match we think we should not start from the first minute but from the 38th minute, from the penalty.’
Their protests fell on deaf ears, and Bahrain promptly went on to squeeze past them to set up that fateful meeting with Trinidad & Tobago. This campaign has rubbed salt in the wounds too, with Bahrain winning 1-0 in Tashkent last February, although veteran coach Milan Macala expects a sterner test on home soil. ‘Uzbekistan will come at us,’ he admits to Time Out. ‘I hope that the crowd makes a lot of noise. The last time I took charge of the team against them we won, but that was because they hadn’t played any serious competition. The Russian and Ukrainian league had finished, and they were not prepared. Some of their players play for Dynamo Kiev, so they will be back and be much stronger.’
Macala is something of an old hand when it comes to Middle Eastern football. The Czech tactician has coached in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and has been in charge of the Bahraini national team for two years now – quite an achievement, given that coaches in the region have a life expectancy comparable to bomb disposal experts. The Iraqi FA, for instance, has gone through seven coaches over the same period. Macala, though, has grown thick skin over the years, taking charge of six national teams, winning the Gulf Cup twice and then being unceremoniously, and largely unfairly, sacked from almost every job he’s been in.
In Bahrain, though, he has seen a talented pool of players and, more importantly, a passionate love of the game that has allowed the country to punch above its footballing weight; something that has been missing from its regional rivals. Whilst Bahrain has excelled in recent years, high profile countries like Qatar and the UAE, for example, have struggled. Both have won regional tournaments – the former the Asian Games, the latter the Gulf Cup – but both were achieved on home soil. In the heat of World Cup qualification, both have wilted despite huge amounts of money being poured in to the domestic game.
Dubai has pumped millions of dollars into football sponsorship abroad, and Abu Dhabi purchased Premier League side Manchester City last year. The UAE’s league finally went professional this season too, but the country remains firmly rooted to the bottom of its qualification group, with no chance of progressing. Qatar, too, spent big, even resorting to naturalising South American players in a bid to progress, much to the chagrin of its Asian rivals.
A 1-0 defeat to Bahrain has virtually eliminated its chances. For Macala, it’s not the money that’s important – Bahrain after all is the poorest of the Gulf nations. Rather it is the fact that the kingdom has a far deeper and more sincere footballing culture. ‘They have talented players here, they have speed, sure,’ Macala explains. ‘But what is most important is that they play football every day. On every patch of sand they are putting goals up and playing five, six a side. Bahrain is small, only 700,000 people, but they have talent and motivation, because this is not a rich country. It’s not like in Saudi Arabia or the [United Arab] Emirates. Here they are trying to find a future for the sport.’
Despite the limited pool of players, Macala has built on the team he inherited, drafting in players from the under-23 Olympic squad. Now he has a side that are starting to attract the attention of European scouts. Jaycee John, for instance, already plays for RE Mouscron, a side in Belgium’s top division. ‘We have two or three players that are interesting foreign clubs,’ admits Macala. ‘Jaycee John plays in Belgium, and there has been interest from Turkey.
It is important to have contact with European football. Jaycee knows what it’s like to be professional, to train twice a day. [Midfielder Abdulla] Fatadi, and this is only what I’ve heard, has been getting interest from French and Saudi teams.’ Add to the mix experienced players like Salman Isa, the marauding wing back who scored against Japan earlier this year in an Asian Cup qualifier, and Husain Ali, Bahrain’s record goal scorer, and you have a team even stronger than the one that went so close last time out.
Still, Macala is loathe to even talk about the World Cup, using the old footballing cliché that he is just ‘concentrating on the next game’ and trying to give his inexperienced charges as much pitch time as possible, like when Bahrain played a tournament in Austria against seasoned European club opposition. They lost 4-1 to Germany’s Shalke 04 and 2-1 to Stoke City, but even in defeat Macala has seen the positives. ‘I don’t want to talk about the World Cup, only the next game and that’s Australia,’ he says. ‘We’ve played them, and Japan. We play against these teams and get good results.
Every game gives us experience. How many chances do you think we would get to play South Korea and Japan? And if you are based [in the league] here you cannot say that Bahrain is even the best in the Gulf. We went for our training camp to Austria and lost, but this isn’t important. We will play a lot of games and lose a lot of games, but it is all about experience.’
Macala may claim that, regardless of where Bahrain finishes, it’s about building for the future. Yet once again the country has been shown a path to glory in South Africa. Whatever anyone says, the fans who trudged home three-and-a-half years ago, and the players who lay shattered on the turf as their opponents celebrated, will still believe miracles do happen.
The Road to South Africa 2010
• The final round of qualifiers sees Bahrain take on Australia in Sydney and Uzbekistan in Manama. Victory in either will ensure third place in Group 1.
• Third place in the group will set up a two-legged playoff against either Iran or, more likely, Saudi Arabia.
• The winner of that playoff goes through to a final, two legged meeting with the Champions of Oceania, New Zealand. The winner will clinch the final World Cup qualifying berth.
Bahrain plays against Australia on June 10 and Uzbekistan on June 17. When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone by James Montague is available from www.amazon.co.uk.