24 February 2016
They were a penalty kick away from one of the greatest fairytales in sport. Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom in the Persian Gulf, had made it through to the inter-continental play-off, against New Zealand, for a spot at the 2010 World Cup finals.
Despite their size – qualification would make them the smallest nation ever to qualify for the finals – Bahrain’s national team had punched well above their weight in recent years. In fact, they had missed out by only one goal from qualifying for Germany 2006.
The Red, as the team are known, had a golden generation of players too: A’ala and Mohamed Hubail, Salman Isa and the exciting midfield prospect Sayed Mohammed Adnan. It was Adnan, once nominated for the AFC’s Asian Player of the Year award, who had the chance to qualify Bahrain for South Africa from the penalty spot. He missed.
For seven years I travelled throughout the Middle East – before, during and after its many uprisings, to write When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East. The game is revered in the region but in many places it is also more important than just a game.
With little public space to discuss and exchange ideas, aside from the mosque, football stadiums and the game itself also became agents for change, whether in Egypt, the Palestinian territories or Libya.
In 2009 I travelled to Bahrain to find out more about this country’s football miracle. Instead, when mass protests broke out in 2011, many of the people I saw play, whose names I heard chanted from the stadiums, would find themselves in jail for joining the protests and calling for change.
At the time, the man in charge of Bahraini football was Sheikh Salman, the man currently favourite to win FIFA’s presidency.
Below is the chapter of my book that tells part of Bahrain’s story.
This extract is part of Sportingintelligence’s guide to the 2016 FIFA presidential election: HOME PAGE here
Chapter 13 BAHRAIN
MILAN Macala was a man with a very obvious dislike of the press. The 66-year-old coach of the Bahrain national team had – like any coach who had weighed the cash benefit of working in the region against the insane pressure that followed – good reason to be suspicious of the circus that
had just enveloped him and his team. The Czech had spent the past 15 years hopping from one managerial job to the next in the Gulf, hounded by the Middle East’s sclerotic, demanding football scribes whilst both being adored and pilloried by the all powerful royal families that controlled every aspect of the game in the region.
He had largely succeeded wherever he went, winning two Gulf Cups with Kuwait, for example. But sometimes he was not, brutally fired by the Saudis after his first match, a 4-1 defeat to eventual winners Japan, at the 2000 Asia Cup in Lebanon, a common demise for most coaches of the Green Falcons. After all, since his sacking 13 years ago 13 more Saudi coaches had followed him in and out the same door. Now he was on the verge of arguably one of the greatest achievements in international football. But the veil of secrecy and suspicion remained.
‘I will speak to you for five minutes, but that’s it,’ he barked down the phone. Macala was busy preparing for the biggest game in Bahrain’s history: a first leg inter- continental play-off against New Zealand in the Bahraini capital of Manama for a place at the 2010 World Cup finals.
‘The training session will be closed,’ he added, ‘so you won’t be allowed in or to speak to the players, ok?’ Somewhere in Bahrain he slammed down the phone.
This was a problem. I had travelled to Bahrain in the hope of seeing one of the unlikeliest qualifications in World Cup history. By all measures Bahrain shouldn’t have been anywhere near South Africa. The tiny Gulf kingdom was one of the smallest countries on earth, a tiny island next to Qatar and Saudi Arabia that nonetheless had such geopolitical significance that the US military had stationed its Fifth Fleet there.
Bahrain had a population under a million where the local football league was semi-professional at best. Unlike its Gulf neighbours, Bahrain was poor but more democratic. The kingdom was still ruled by a powerful monarch, Hamid bin Isa al Khalifa, who picked the prime minister, but there was a parliament that gave voice to Bahrain’s unusual sectarian mix. Unlike the rest of the Arabian side of the Gulf, the majority of Bahrain’s population was Shia – Iran even declared it part of its territory in the 1950s – but its royal family followed Sunni Islam.
During the 1990s there was an uprising in Bahrain by the Shia majority against the Sunni elite. There were allegations of torture by the security forces, then led by a former British police officer called Ian Henderson, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Bahrain’ by one 2002 British documentary. When the current king came to the throne it was seen as clear step towards reform and reconciliation between the two communities. Bahrain, a place where one Lebanese journalist had told me had endured unreported bombings almost every night in the restless Shia villages outside the capital, was now quieter and more peaceful.
The small numbers of citizens and the deep sectarian divisions had not impacted on the national team, which had become one of the strongest in the region. In 2004 they reached only their second Asian Cup finals and shocked the continent when they reached the semi-finals. Two brothers in that team accounted for over half of Bahrain’s goals: Mohamed and A’ala Hubail. A’ala had finished joint scorer in the tournament alongside Iranian midfielder Ali Karimi. He scored twice in Bahrain’s quarter-final victory over Uzbekistan, as well as the winning kick in their victorious penalty shootout.
That was just the start. Both the Hubail brothers starred as Bahrain tried to reach the 2006 World Cup finals. A’ala scored six times, the second highest in Asian qualification, setting up a play-off match, again against Uzbekistan. After a bizarre scandal the first match between the two in September 2005, which the Uzbeks won 1-0, was annulled after FIFA judged that the Japanese referee had made a technical error. He had awarded Uzbekistan a penalty but, after spotting an Uzbek player encroaching in the box, blew for an indirect free kick to Bahrain.
FIFA said he should have ordered the penalty be retaken. The Uzbeks were incensed, especially as they won the game and should have had a retaken penalty anyway. Bahrain went on to draw the replay 1-1 in Tashkent before holding the Uzbeks 0-0 in Manama, going through to the final intercontinental play off against Trinidad and Tobago on away goals. If Bahrain had won that tie against Trinidad and Tobago, they would have been the smallest country every to qualify for the finals. They almost made it too. After grabbing an away goal in the first leg in the Caribbean, hopes were high for the return leg in Manama. Both the Hubail brothers had started that match. They held out until the 49th minute when Dennis Lawrence scored for Trinidad. It was they, and not Bahrain, that became the smallest ever nation to qualify for the finals.
Their journey towards the 2010 World Cup finals was equally as dramatic. A’ala was again joint top scorer in qualification for the Bahrainis as a new star emerged. Sayed Mohamed Adnan was a leggy but cultured central midfielder who could also play at centre back. His performances had caught the eye of European clubs as well as the Asian Football Confederation, who nominated him for their 2009 Player of the Year award. They, along with evergreen winger Salman Isa, helped set up a play-off against their much disliked Saudi neighbours.
A historic, sectarian dislike existed between the two, deepened by the regular pilgrimage made by young Saudi men driving over the King Fahd causeway that connects the two every Thursday night to get drunk and start fights. The first leg in September 2009, almost exactly four years after that Japanese refereeing debacle in Tashkent, ended 0-0. As the second leg, played just four days later, entered the 90th minute, the score was 1-1 and Bahrain were going through to the final round on away goals.
The board went up showing three minutes as the 50,000 crowd started to get restless. The Saudis pumped the ball forward. Yasser al Qahtani somehow volleyed a cross over from the right hand by-line. Asian Player of the Year Hamad al Montashari rose to clatter the ball into the top left hand corner. The game was over. The crowd exhaled into a state of what turned out to be premature ecstasy. With ten seconds left of injury time Salman Isa burst forward and won a corner. Isa swung the ball in, a last, desperate, futile attempt. Time seemed to stop as Sayed Mohamed Adnan and Ismail Abdulatif both rose for the ball. It glanced off Abdulatif ’s head. The ball looped goalwards, as if in slow motion, and nestled into the bottom right hand corner. 2-2. It was one of the most incredible four minutes of World Cup football you could ever hope to see. The whistle blew a few seconds later.
Macala, his white hair and rotund frame giving him the air of young Boris Yeltsin, seemed shocked, conflicted even, hugging his players before they collapsed in tears around him. It is on such small margins that heroes are made and broken.
‘At 1-1, 90 minutes, the game was over,’ Macala said as we met after nightfall outside the offices of the Bahraini Football Association. It was October but a late summer heat wave made the air feel like warm soup.
Nearby his team was warming up for training as a dozen frenzied local journalists buzzed around, taking advantage to speak to the players as Macala was looking the other way. ‘I nearly had a heart attack,’ he said. ‘It was 30 seconds in to injury time. But then we scored again. What can I say? It was luck!’
Luck only gets a team so far. Unlike the UAE and Qatar – two Gulf countries now leveraging their wealth to change the shape of global sport – football in Bahrain was a street game. Rusty goalposts jutted out of almost every spare patch of sand in the capital, where young children play until dusk.
‘I don’t know how to explain it, you compare the leagues to Bahrain to Kuwait and Qatar, they have much more money and better quality pitches,’ explained Macala, now much more amenable than he was on the phone. ‘But spirit and desire is much more important. We have had many, many positive moments to help us dream the dream. They have talent and they have speed and flexibility. They [Bahrainis] are playing football every day, everywhere. It’s a small place but they play football, it is in their nature. But now they need organisation to prepare, and to have a strong league.’
Much of the team had now moved to the better paid professional leagues in places like nearby Qatar. There was also Jaycee John, a naturalised Nigerian who played in Belgium. But the key dynamic was one of faith. Macala believed that a mixed team of Sunni and Shia players sent an important message to the rest of the country that was still coming to terms with life after its uprising.
‘It [qualification] is very important to them because this is a great moment for the country, because of football,’ he said ‘Everybody on the street is talking about the Bahrain national team. The team is a representative of the country as a whole. This island is small, only 700,000 people [nationals], and everybody loves football.’
The match was also viewed by many in Bahrain as a last chance. The heartbreak against Trinidad and Tobago four years previously had left a mark. ‘After what happened four years ago we are desperate,’ said Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa al Khalifa. Sheikh Khalifa was the excessively genial vice president of the Bahraini FA and a member of the royal family. He incessantly asked whether I’d like a cup of tea as we talked. ‘Every Bahraini is desperate to go to the World Cup for the first time. It’s a dream for every Bahraini…we have been through hell.’
Macala had seen enough of football in the region to know that chances like these rarely come along once for a country the size of Bahrain, let alone twice. ‘This is the moment for our players,’ he said before heading back to the pitch and ushering the local press off the pitch as if swatting away a swarm of flies. ‘50 per cent of this team played in the game with Trinidad and Tobago. Everyone was crying… we need luck.’
The large doors, covered in green tarpaulin were shut and the press pack thrown outside.
By 3pm on the day of the match, the flags that adorned the walls and fences of Bahrain’s National Stadium, in Riffa outside Manama, had already been meticulously hung. Usually the groundsmen on flag duty busied themselves in silence in front of empty stands but not this time. With three and a half hours before kick-off thousands had already arrived in their seats in anticipation of Bahrain’s first leg World Cup play off against New Zealand, creating an incessant, deafening din that didn’t stop until the final whistle.
The red and white of the Bahrain flag didn’t flutter alone. Portraits of the King had been tied to the hoardings. Flags from Sudan, Palestine, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, among others, flew in solidarity. The message of Arab fraternity was clear. If Bahrain were to be the region’s sole representative at the 2010 World Cup finals, than the Middle East would rally behind it.
‘They play good football and Bahrain is like a second country to us,’ said 24-year- old Abdulatif Hamed, a Kuwaiti who had flown to the game with a gang of friends. ‘The whole of the Arab world will be behind Bahrain, inshallah.’
By kick-off the stadium had far exceeded its 25,000 limit as hundreds of fans filled each spare walkway in the main stand. The conditions were so humid you could almost see the air. But the atmosphere was perfect for Bahrain. A few hours previously the New Zealand team appeared so hot they struggled to get off the team bus and walk the few meters to the stadium. But the All Whites were made of sterner stuff. Sayed Mohamed Adnan controlled the game but Bahrain just couldn’t score.
The pivotal moment came when Salman Isa was put through on goal and, after rounding the keeper, contrived to smash the ball against the post with the goal at his mercy. It finished 0-0. At the full-time whistle the Bahraini players left the pitch grim-faced, knowing a wonderful opportunity had been lost. Isa lay shattered and motionless by the bench, his blank, thousand yard stare a depressing moment of calm amongst Kiwi celebration. For the All Whites it tasted like victory. The players ran to their jubilant section in the corner of the stadium, just 1,000 supporters strong, to link arms and acknowledge what must count as the longest away trip in the history of international football.
‘Any team that has beaten Saudi Arabia back to back will be tough. Australia found it hard too,’ said Kiwi coach Ricki Herbert, a veteran of the All Whites team that had qualified for their only other appearance at the World Cup in 1982, as his staff celebrated pitch side. ‘We wanted to take the tie back home to have a chance and we did that.’ He was less circumspect when he thought he was out of earshot. ‘We’ve done it!’ he shouted whilst bear hugging members of the New Zealand delegation. ‘We’re going all the way now. We’ve fucking done it!’
Outside the ground the crowd trickled home, muted but unbowed, dragging their multinational flags behind them in the sand. ‘0-0 is not a bad score and it’s not a good score but there is a saying in Bahrain that we play better outside of Bahrain than in it,’ shrugged Mohammed Alwadhi, a 17-year-old student making the long trek back to Manama. ‘We just couldn’t find the goal. Even if we put a goal above the goal we wouldn’t have found it.’
Ricki Herbert’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. Back in Wellington, New Zealand took a first half lead before conceding a second half penalty. It was Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the beating heart of Bahrain’s qualification campaign, that stepped forward to take it. He hit it low to the goalkeeper’s right, but it was too weak and too close to Mark Paston who saved it. Adnan still had his hands on his head in disbelief a few minutes later. New Zealand won 1-0 and would go on to draw all three of their group games in South Africa. They were the only team in the tournament to go unbeaten.
The Bahrainis knew they wouldn’t have another chance like this, especially A’ala Hubail, the team’s top scorer for the past six years. He wasn’t in Wellington. The striker had snapped a cruciate ligament in his knee playing for Al Ahli in the Bahraini league a few days before the tie. He would be out for six months. But he sent a message to his team mates before they embarked on their long and ultimately fruitless flight down under.
‘We don’t know what will happen in the next four or five years, and it is difficult to know who will still be playing with the national team at that time,’ Hubail had told the Gulf Daily News of his fear that, after coming within one match, and one goal, on two occasions, he would never play in a World Cup finals. ‘I think this will be the last chance for at least four of our national team players, and I hope they can grab this opportunity for all of us … the national team is more than just one player. If I am out, there will be someone there who can play for me.’
His words were both prophetic and cruel.
The Arab Spring came to Bahrain on Valentine’s Day. Protests had spread across the the Arab world, breaking out from barren landscapes where no dissent had existed before. Bahrain was different. Antagonism had simmered for decades, between the Shia majority who believed that the Sunni minority used royal patronage to subjugate them politically and economically. The reform process had stalled. The King still reserved the right to pick Bahrain’s prime minister, a key demand of the opposition.
Although King Hamid had never needed to pick a new prime minister, Bahrain had only ever had one. Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa had been in place since the country’s independence in 1971. He was the longest serving prime minister in the world. Memories were also still fresh of the last uprising that had ended just 15 years previously. But the discontent had burst forth in a much different world. The Sunni’s had always believed that Bahrain’s Shia political leadership were mere puppets controlled by Tehran. It was a familiar refrain for the Shia everywhere in the Middle East, be they in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain; that their allegiance was to their spiritual leader in Iran and not the country they called home.
For those on the street on Valentine’s Day at the Pearl Roundabout, the issue of Iran was a smoke screen. They wanted greater democracy, not an Iranian style theocracy. They wanted more accountability, not an infallible ayatollah. They wanted jobs and a future that was based on meritocracy, not patronage.
The crowds that gathered were from all areas of Bahrain too, Shia and Sunni. And amongst the crowd were dozens of sporting heroes, wrestlers, hand ball players, and most significantly of all, several national football team players.
It had been just over a year since Sayed Mohamed Adnan, A’ala and Mohamed Hubail had watched their World Cup dream die in Wellington. A’ala and Mohamed now played on the same team, Al Ahli Manama, whilst Adnan had stayed in Qatar playing for Al Khor. But when the protests came they decided it was their duty to take to the streets too.
According to an interview A’ala gave to the Associated Press he’d only agreed to go on the march after hearing that the royal family had sanctioned, even encouraged, peaceful protest. It was the biggest mistake of his and his team-mates’ lives.
The Pearl Roundabout protest was crushed. Activists claim four people were killed when the military rolled their tanks in to clear the makeshift camp that had been erected. Eventually they destroyed the monument at its centre too, in case it became a symbol, a rallying point, for protest. A Pakistani migrant worker in his forties was killed when one of the arches collapsed on to the cab of his crane as he demolished it.
The King Fahd causeway, once the conduit for a thousand young Saudi men to travel to Manama every weekend to raise a little hell, now rumbled with a new convoy: a GCC force from Saudi, Qatar, the UAE and beyond to help the Bahrainis mop up what ever opposition was left.
The players survived. But they were marked men. The three, as well as Bahrain’s goalkeeper, had been spotted at the protests. Those that played in Bahrain – like the Hubail brothers – were fired from their clubs and effectively banned from the national team. Then they were all arrested.
Shortly before his imprisonment A’ala was shamed on national TV, the host of one talk show labelling the protesters ‘stray hyenas’ and subjecting him to a 15 minute grilling about his ‘treachery’ on state TV. The next day they came for him and his brother.
‘We saw some masked men get out of the car. They said: ‘Captain A’ala get you brother’ and we went with them,’ A’ala later explained in an ESPN documentary.
‘They put me in the room for the beatings. One of the people who hit me said I’m going to break your legs. They knew who we were … We were forced to endure it. I had to endure it. If I didn’t something worse would have happened to me.’
Yet no-one spoke up for the footballers initially; not FIFA, not the AFC and not the US or British government that had supported other such uprisings in Libya or Syria but who considered the Bahrain Royal Family a vital ally against the rise of Iran. It was British- and American-made tear gas and rubber bullets that silenced the uprising.
‘The violence and abuse is so huge. We have too much work. We can’t cope here. A lot of doctors, a lot of people have been targeted, soccer players, basketball players, teachers, unionists,’ explained Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights. He had agreed to speak to me over Skype. He wouldn’t speak on mobile phone nor write by email. He was worried that, as the most visible opponent in the foreign media, his communications was being tapped. Rajab was himself arrested in the middle of the night on charges he had fabricated a picture showing a dead protester, allegedly killed by the army. He claimed he was tortured, threatened with rape and then released.
‘The people who are in charge, they don’t care about international image,’ he said. ‘They are military people. All of the sport associations are headed by the royal family. We have 100 associations headed by the royal family.’
But Rajab reserved his harshest criticism for FIFA, ‘The silence of FIFA and of the AFC raises a question. Either they [the Bahraini FA] have a green signal or they [FIFA and the AFC] accept such violence against football players. Footballers have rights like any other human to be a citizen. It’s time for FIFA to raise their voice. The people of Bahrain are looking at them and asking: ‘Where are you?’’
The three players were imprisoned for up to three months. After media pressure made ignorance impossible, FIFA belatedly enquired whether their detention broke their rules own rules on political involvement in the game.
‘The players have obviously been in custody after their involvement in the demonstrations and acts of violence against governmental officials was proven,’ said Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa al Khalifa, the genial vice president of the BFA who had been achingly friendly when I met him in 2009, in a statement when I contacted him. ‘The players have been arrested, investigated and detained for having opposed the general laws and by-laws of the country. The fact that they happen to be footballers and national team players is highly irrelevant … If tolerance was shown to those who happen to be athletes, it will result in the disintegrating of the equality under the law spirit, a matter that goes beyond everything our revered government stands for.’
When the players were released their national careers were over. Mohamed Hubail was sentenced to two years in jail, later thrown out on appeal.
A’ala fled to Oman where he played in the local league, his family still in Bahrain. Sayed Mohamed Adnan left for Australia and starred for the Brisbane Roar as he powered them on to win the A-League championship.
But what had once united a nation had been broken for a generation. The national football team had been shorn of its best players, its legends tainted and abused. Former Leicester coach Peter Taylor, who famously took charge of England for one game and gave David Beckham the captaincy, took charge of Bahrain’s attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals.
Taylor had never heard of A’ala Hubail, he said. Nor was he on a list of players handed to him for selection. Now the national team, and its under-23 team trying to qualify for London 2012 was more interested in showing unity for the King. After Bahrain defeated Palestine in one Olympic qualifier the players gathered around to kiss a portrait of King Hamid.
Taylor’s World Cup campaign was not a success. Bahrain were eliminated in the first group stage. They lost 6-0 to Iran and won just two games, both against the lowest ranked team in the group, Indonesia. The second was an incredible 10-0 victory in the final game of the group. But as Bahrain needed to beat Indonesia 9-0 and hope Qatar lost to Iran, FIFA launched a ‘routine’ investigation.
But it was significant for another reason. Sayed Mohamed Adnan was called back in to the team. The Gulf Weekly, a pro-regime English language publication, reported the news in typical magnanimous fashion. ‘His appearance in the squad shows the world that soccer in Bahrain is above politics and how sport can be a unifying force for good,’ they wrote.
The golden era of Bahraini football, an era that saw one of the smallest nations on the planet humble Asia’s giants, an era that saw a team which, in Milan Macala’s words ‘represented the whole country’, an era that produced two of the finest Asian players of the last ten years, was over.
A’ala Hubail’s words in 2009, after a serious injury ruled him out of that second leg inter continental World Cup play-off against New Zealand, also returned to haunt him.
‘We don’t know what will happen in the next four or five years, and it is difficult to know who will still be playing with the national team,’ he said. Instead he was left to reflect on his evisceration. As he told ESPN whilst living in exile in Oman : ‘I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve this humiliation.’
James Montague is a journalist and author who writes for The New York Times, World Soccer and Delayed Gratification. He is the author of When Friday Comes and Thirty One Nil, which won Football Book of the Year at the 2015 British Sports Book of the Year Awards.