Having gone within a whisker of booking their first-ever place at the FIFA World Cup™ finals following defeat against CONCACAF side Trinidad and Tobago in a play-off two years ago, Bahrain are aiming to take the big step up this time around.
Since emerging as a rising power in the final qualifying round for Korea/Japan 2002, the Gulf country has made consistent progress over recent years to be installed among the continent's best. They finished only behind Saudi Arabia and Iran in that qualifying competition, and the team's primary rebuilding process culminated in 2003 when they became the year's Best Movers in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
They went on to shock the continental stage the following year, storming into the last four of the 2004 AFC Asian Cup with marksman A'ala Hubail scoring four times to sit atop the tournament scoring charts alongside Iran's Ali Karimi. Also in the same year, the Bahrain hotshot added five goals to his tally in Asia's second qualifying round for Germany 2006 to send Bahrain into the last eight.
Pitted against Iran and Japan in the final qualifying round, they could manage no better than to finish behind the two powerhouses, but the third-place finish ahead of Korea DPR set up a two-legged play-off with Uzbekistan, where they advanced on away goals.
With Asia's attention now focusing on the all-important play-off against Trinidad and Tobago, Bahrain were determined to qualify for the global showpiece event as the continent's fifth team. They travelled back from Port of Spain with a 1-1 draw but in the return leg in Manama, they failed at the final hurdle, succumbing to a Dennis Lawrence goal.
While it is amazing for the tiny Gulf nation to boast a team that are capable to compete against Asia's best - a fact underlined by their successful qualifying for the 2007 Asian Cup finals - the team's development is limited by the lack of young talents. The problem was highlighted in the Asian Cup when Bahrain, under newly appointed coach Milan Macala, suffered an early exit after the group stage with two defeats, including a 4-0 demolition at the hands of Saudi Arabia.
Macala remained with the team for the South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign, and Bahrain have been richly rewarded for the faith they have shown in the Czech tactician. The men from the Gulf have stormed to the top of Asian qualifying Group 2, beating the mighty Japan in the process, and ensured qualification for the final group stage with a game to spare.