Bahrain get a second once-in-a-lifetime chance

By James Montague
Amid a hail of plastic bottles, Bahrain’s national team lay scattered across the pitch of the National Stadium in Manama. Some are slumped, others stand with their hands on their hips, while one player appears to be crying as photographers buzz around his prone, disconsolate team-mates.

On the other side of the pitch the opposition embarks on a frenzied, euphoric celebration. The crowd begins to drift away, a palpable mixture of anger and incredulity being dragged with them into the night as the realisation sets in that Bahrain have just missed out on what is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reach the World Cup finals.

After one of the most bizarre and controversial qualification campaigns in recent years, and after a mammoth 17 games, it was a single goal by Trinidad and Tobago’s Dennis Lawrence that saw Bahrain fall at the final hurdle in a winner-takes-all play-off which sent the Caribbean side to Germany in 2006.

Bahrain would have been the smallest nation ever to make the finals had they had qualified and they could be forgiven for thinking they would never be so close again. However, having beaten Uzbekistan this June to take third place in their 2010 World Cup qualifying group, they now face arch-rivals Saudi Arabia in another play-off, with the winner playing New Zealand for a place at next year’s tournament in South Africa.

It is ironic that it was Uzbekistan that Bahrain had to get past this time around. Back in 2005 the two teams met in an ill-tempered play-off to decide who would meet Trinidad and 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, Toshimitsu Yoshida, had made a technical error. After awarding the home side a penalty in the 38th minute, he then gave a free-kick to Bahrain when an Uzbekistan player encroached into the penalty area.

After drawing the replayed game 1-1, Bahrain went through on away goals to set up that fateful meeting with Trinidad and Tobago, and this campaign has further rubbed salt in the wounds with Bahrain winning 1-0 in Tashkent in February.

The man leading the charge this time around is Milan Macala, who is something of an old hand when it comes to Middle Eastern football. The Czech tactician has coached in Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and has been in charge of the Bahrain national team for two years – which is quite an achievement in theses parts, given that Iraq, for instance, have 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 being unceremoniously sacked from almost every job he’s had. With Bahrain he has overseen a talented pool of players and, more importantly, inherited a passion for of the game that has allowed the country to punch above its weight compared to some of their regional rivals.

High profile countries such as Qatar and UAE, for example, may have won regional tournaments – the former the Asian Games, the latter the Gulf Cup – but their success has always been on home soil. In the heat of World Cup qualification both have wilted despite huge amounts of money being poured into the game.

Dubai has pumped millions of dollars into football at home and abroad – a professional domestic league began this season and Abu Dhabi bought Premier League side Manchester City – but UAE still finished bottom of their qualification group. Qatar also spent big, even resorting to naturalising South American players in a bid to progress, but a 1-0 defeat against Bahrain ended their chances.

But for Macala it’s not the money that’s important – after all, Bahrain is the poorest of the Gulf nations – rather it is the fact that the country has a far deeper and more sincere footballing culture.

“They have talented players here, they have speed, sure, but what is most important is that they play football every day,” he says. “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 also have 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 team’s Under-23 Olympic squad. Now he has a team that is attracting the attention of European scouts, with Jaycee John, an naturalized Nigerian, already playing overseas for Mouscron.

“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 its 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 the winning goal against Japan earlier this year in an Asian Cup qualifier, striker A’ala Hubail and free-kick specialist Mahmood Abdulrahman, who scored the deciding goals home and away against Uzbekistan, and Bahrain look better equipped to reach the finals this time around.

However, Macala is loathe to be drawn on South Africa, saying: “I don’t want to talk about the World Cup, only the next game. Every game gives us experience.”

Macala may claim that, regardless of where Bahrain finishes, it’s about building for the future, but talk to any Manama taxi driver and they will tell you just what they think of play-off opponents Saudi Arabia.

The two countries are connected by the King Fahd Causeway, a short drive for frustrated Saudi men wanting to drink and raise a little hell in their relatively liberal neighbour. Religion plays its part too, with Saudi Arabia a Wahhabi Sunni state and Bahrain a largely Shia country ruled by a Sunni royal family that doesn’t enjoy universal support.

The two-leg play-off – starting in Manama on September 5, with the return in Riyadh four days later – will be explosive, and Bahrain might even have time to shoot themselves in the foot too, with the FA dithering over Macala’s contract.

But Milan or no Milan, the fans who trudged home three-and-a-half years ago, and the players who lay shattered on the turf as their opponents celebrated around them, are determined to amends for that disappointment.