Bahrain strive to continue climb
© AFP

Excelling during a series of friendlies in the build-up to their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against Oman on 6 February came with a reward for Bahrain: a 17-place leap to 83rd on last month's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Asia's biggest movers, the tiny Gulf nation outstripped the likes of United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman to break into the continent's top ten.

Under the guidance of the Czech Milan Macala, Bahrain began their preparations for the Oman game with an impressive 1-0 win over regional giants Kuwait on 16 January. And although they lost 2-1 to Syria one week later, Bahrain swiftly rediscovered their touch to beat Yemen by the same scoreline.

Unsurprisingly, these results sent Macala's team into the South Africa 2010 preliminary high on confidence, and A'ala Hubail struck the only goal in Muscat to earn them a precious victory.

This is not, however, the first time that Bahrain have made an impact on the global ladder. In 2003 they were the 'best movers' on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and thereafter they continue to make progress. This progress culminated in their advancement to the semi-finals of the AFC Asian Cup 2004, which duly elevated them to 44th position in September of that year.

Bahrain were, in fact, only a single step away from a place at Germany 2006, but their hopes of a ground-breaking achievement were ended by Trinidad and Tobago in their two-legged play-off. More disappointment ensued when they failed to reach the knockout phase at last July's Asian Cup following defeats to Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, Bahrain dropped to a four-year low of 108th in last September's ranking.

Japan await
The preliminary campaign for South Africa 2010 provided the Gulf nation with a chance to rebuild their status, and a 4-1 aggregate victory over Malaysia saw them cruise into the AFC Zone's last 20. The recent defeat of Oman in their third qualifying round opener came as a further boost to the Bahrainis, who must now strive to reach the continent's last ten.

Next up for Bahrain is the visit of Japan, who beat Thailand 4-1 in their own curtain-raiser. A positive result in the 26 March fixture, against a side that twice undid them in qualifying for the last edition of the FIFA World Cup, would leave Macala's side in a strong position to qualify from the section.

Despite being without a handful of their overseas-based players, an under-strength Bahrain managed a 2-1 over Qatar on Tuesday. "It was a good match for us as we were able to try out a lot of our players," said team manager Hassan Khalfan. "Coach Macala had a chance to see them first-hand, and now we can continue with his build-up plan for our match with Japan."

Having gone so close to a first-ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals in Germany, Bahrain are determined to turn their dream into reality this time around.