Helio Sousa has rejuvenated Bahrain over the past year
Team is performing well in Qatar 2022 qualifiers and won the Gulf Cup
"We've achieved a lot but we're still looking for more"
When Bahrain announced the appointment of the Portuguese Helio Sousa as head coach in March 2019 the decision got a lukewarm reception from the country's fans, given that the new incumbent had not previously coached a senior national team or worked outside of Portugal.
However, these concerns dissipated four months later, when the team took part in their first tournament under Sousa’s stewardship. Bahrain topped their group at the 2019 West Asian Championship after defeating Jordan and Kuwait, and drawing with Saudi Arabia. They then triumphed over hosts Iraq in the final en route to their maiden regional title.
While he would have liked more time with the team ahead of the tournament, Sousa revealed that he has "a good group of players who have proven they can get good results".
"I quickly got to know all of them at the training camp we had in Portugal in July right before the tournament," Sousa added. "I didn’t have enough time to assess their capabilities fully, but we managed to win the West Asian title after less than two months working with them. That’s a big achievement in itself."
After their triumph in Iraq, Bahrain brought their fine form into the Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, most notably in their 1-0 defeat of IR Iran, who sat 23rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in October 2019.
That victory moved Bahrain up to second place in Group C behind front-runners Iraq, who drew with Bahrain twice and are well positioned to progress to the final qualifying round after going unbeaten in their opening five games.
Asked how he felt Bahrain’s defence was performing under him, the former midfielder said, "We’ve improved the players’ defensive performances and they’ve shown themselves to be very responsive to our methods. They implemented what we asked them to do, particularly against Iran, when we had our best performance of the qualifiers.”
Bahrain’s three remaining Group C games are against Cambodia, IR Iran and Hong Kong. "There are nine points up for grabs and we’ll do whatever it takes to try and get all nine. Everyone in the squad has assumed their share of responsibility, and they work hard for the national team," the 50-year-old explained.
Bahrain’s games in the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022
5 September 2019: Bahrain 1-1 Iraq
10 September 2019: Cambodia 0-1 Bahrain
15 October 2019: Bahrain 1-0 IR Iran
14 November 2019: Hong Kong 0-0 Bahrain
19 November 2019: Iraq 0-0 Bahrain
Not only has Sousa guided Bahrain to good results in the Qatar 2022 qualifiers, but the Portuguese made history when he led them to their maiden Gulf Cup title thanks to a series of impressive results at last December’s edition in Qatar.
Drawn in a tough group alongside holders Oman, a Saudi Arabia side under the vastly-experienced Frenchman Herve Renard, and record Gulf Cup title winners Kuwait, Bahrain made the semi-finals after drawing with Oman, losing to Saudi Arabia and defeating Kuwait.
In the last four, Bahrain overcame Iraq in a penalty shoot-out before avenging Saudi Arabia in the final, when Mohammed Al Rumaihi scored the only goal of the game. This win marked Sousa’s second title after less than ten months in the job.
"We’re experiencing something unique right now but we must think about the next stage. It’s a great time for me and my team. The players were great despite all the circumstances we went through because they are semi-professional,” Sousa said of the historic win.
"We’ve managed to achieve a lot in recent months but we’re still looking for more. We’ve worked very hard to make Bahrain competitive in all tournaments," he added.
Having won the West Asian Championship and the Gulf Cup, it goes without saying that Bahrain are now targeting a maiden World Cup appearance at Qatar 2022, an achievement that now seems possible under the stewardship of their Portuguese 'dream maker'.