Experience always plays a key role in football, and Bahrain will be hoping that Mohamed Salmeen’s know-how will make the difference this week in their crucial pair of qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Former captain Salmeen earned a surprise recall to the Bahrain squad after a lengthy spell on the sidelines, with English coach Peter Taylor looking to guide the Gulf side into the final round of the Asian qualifying tournament.
As surprises go, Salmeen’s return to the national set-up is certainly a pleasant one for Bahrain. Former England U-21 coach Taylor will be looking to the midfielder to guide the younger players and help them learn from his experience of past encounters with Iran.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Salmeen said his main objective is to give his team-mates confidence. Most of them lack experience at international level, and Salmeen knows this could count against his side when they face Iran at the fortress-like Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
“After my absence through injury, I’m now back in the national team,” said Salmeen of his return to Taylor’s side. “First and foremost, though, I’m here to regain physical fitness, because I haven’t played for quite some time.”
“I have experience of playing in qualifiers like this and I’ll try to support my team-mates as best I can,” he continued. “The Bahraini league is small and our young players lack experience at the highest level. They need the help, whether that be on a tactical or mental level, or in terms of experience, and that’s what the older players can offer them.”
The 30-year-old has already faced Iran three times in FIFA World Cup qualifying competitions, so he is perhaps better placed than most to advise his team-mates on the eve of their all-important encounter.
“The best advice I can give them is to not be overawed by the Iran fans who will pack the Azadi Stadium to the rafters,” said Salmeen. “They [the Iran fans] are passionate about football and they support their team to the end, especially when they’re playing against a Gulf side.”
“Iran are virtually untouchable at home,” Salmeen went on. “Our players need to ignore the pressure from the crowd. In 2001, when we drew against them in Tehran, we were completely focused on our objective and paid no attention to the massive crowds watching from the stands.”
That draw in 2001 is not Salmeen’s only positive memory of past encounters with Iran. Indeed, ten years ago Bahrain recorded a 3-1 victory in Manama to deny their longtime rivals automatic qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan.
Reflecting on that match, Salmeen said: “We had a good international ranking at the time and we wanted to beat this well-known team at all costs. The pressure was all on them. It’s a very good memory, because the Iran we beat back then was better than the current team.”
I have experience of playing in qualifiers like this and I’ll try to support my team-mates as best I can.
A decade on from that historic victory, Salmeen and co are poised to take on Iran once again. He knows it will not be an easy match, however, and stated that Team Melli are “one of the best sides in Asia”. The midfielder then added: “That said, we’ve matched them in the majority of our encounters and they definitely won’t be taking us lightly.”
Salmeen is positive about how his team-mates have fared in qualifying to date, particularly given recent events away from the pitch. So far in the current round, Bahrain have managed a goalless draw at home to Qatar and a 2-0 away victory over Indonesia.
“Given the situation, our results in qualifying have been positive,” said Salmeen. “They’ve even surpassed our expectations, considering our lack of preparation, the arrival of a new coach and the difficult circumstances. For this reason we should be pleased that we’ve picked up four points from two matches.”
Confidence and hope
Tuesday’s showdown will be just the third competitive game in charge for Taylor since he took the Bahrain job in June this year. For his part, Salmeen hopes the 58-year-old can enjoy the same level of success as past coaches such as Srecko Juricic and Milan Macala.
“Taylor gained experience managing the England U-21s as well as several club sides,” explained Salmeen. “His success will depend more than anything on the performances of the current squad, and that includes both the youngsters and the more experienced players.”
As the interview drew to a close, Salmeen looked back at Bahrain’s play-off against Trinidad and Tobago in the preliminaries for Germany 2006, which ended in defeat for his side. History repeated itself four years later, with Bahrain losing to New Zealand. “I’ve taken part in three World Cup qualifying campaigns,” said Salmeen. “In the last two competitions, we managed to reach the intercontinental play-offs before losing to Trinidad and Tobago and then New Zealand. We should have won against New Zealand, given our previous experience.”
Salmeen is targeting a more positive outcome this time around, adding: “I hope it’ll be third time lucky and that we can secure our place at Brazil 2014.”