Thursday 11 October 2018, 05:45

Bahrain’s new generation on the rise

  • Bahrain are making incremental progress on the FIFA World Ranking

  • The Gulf nation came close to qualifying for successive World Cups

  • Upcoming Asian Cup offers opportunity for return to glory days

In successive FIFA World Cup™ campaigns a decade ago, the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain were just a bounce of the ball away from qualification for world football’s greatest stage. Narrow failures they may have been on the road to Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, but they were still significant achievements for a small nation numbering just over a million inhabitants.

Indeed, had Bahrain qualified for the 2006 edition, they would have been the smallest nation at that time to feature at a World Cup. Instead that achievement went the way of their opponents – the Dwight Yorke-inspired Trinidad and Tobago. And that feat, of course, was famously eclipsed by Iceland this year in Russia.

Four years after Bahrain's initial heartbreak came even more anguish as they missed a penalty that would have taken them to the World Cup at New Zealand’s expense. New Zealand, of course subsequently competed at South Africa 2010 with distinction, completing the group stage undefeated.

The 'golden generation' of that era have since exited the international stage. Long gone from the distinctive all-red strip is the midfield drive offered by Mohamed Salmeen, the ingenuity of iconic wide attacker Salman Isa and others.

Recent years have offered little solace to fans of Al-Ahmar (The Reds). The national side suffered elimination during the penultimate stage of qualification for the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.

But a recent, incremental increase in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking suggests the Bahrainis are at least part way towards rediscovering their former glory. The west Asians are now sitting at 112, their highest ranking since 2013. Should they crack the top 100, Bahrain would be in their highest position for close to a decade.

Continental stage Bahrain will have an opportunity to display their progress to a broad audience early next year when they compete in the AFC Asian Cup. It is tournament at which they have previously excelled, having finished fourth in 2004 – a result that in hindsight prove a portent of the nation’s looming achievements in World Cup qualifying.

Can Bahrain once again reach those highs? The challenge is even greater now with next year’s tournament in the United Arab Emirates enlarged to 24 teams, and greater depth across the world’s most populous continent.

“We have the right management and board members that can make the national team a big force in the Gulf,” former national team striker Jaycee John said during the tail-end of Asian Cup qualifying campaign. “I think we can do that in one or two years because this generation of players they are very, very good.”

Recent results suggest Bahrain are on the right track. Since mid-2017 the side, with experienced Czech Miroslav Soukup at the helm, has lost just twice in 13 outings.

It will be far from easy in UAE for Bahrain, who have been drawn to tackle the host nation in the tournament opener, before further group-stage outings against the under-rated Thailand and India.

“We have a very interesting group,” said Soukup. “We’re playing against the hosts in the opening game in front of 50,000 to 60,000 spectators, it will be great for our team.

“People are saying that our group is not difficult, but whoever qualified to the Asian Cup finals are strong and they have quality.”