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Bahrain's World Cup wounds

November 11, 2008
By Jason Dasey

November 16th, 2005 remains a dark day in Bahrain's football history. In the 92nd minute of a home playoff against Trinidad and Tobago for a place in the World Cup, striker Ahmed Hassan scores what appears to be the decisive goal for Bahrain.

GettyImagesFlashpoint: Tempers flair between Bahrain and Trinidad and Tobago in the infamous 2006 World Cup qualifier.

But Colombian referee Oscar Julian Ruiz Acosta immediately disallows it because Hassan had stolen possession as Trinidad goalkeeper Kelvin Jack threw the ball in the air for his up-field punt.

T&T would hold on for a 1-0 second-leg victory and an overall 2-1 aggregate result, taking Dwight Yorke and co. to Germany 2006.

The disallowed goal was followed by chaotic scenes with defender Hussain Ali Baba red-carded and the fans ripping up seats and throwing them onto the Bahrain National Stadium along with other objects.

An unsuccessful appeal through FIFA followed and Bahrain fell agonisingly short of what would have been their first World Cup finals appearance.

Three years on, it's a pain that still lingers amongst the Bahraini football fraternity as the national team knuckles down to the final phase of its 2010 qualifying campaign. On November 19th, the Bahrainis host Asia's top side, Australia, in a must-win match.

''I might be emotionally biased but I would say that it should have been a goal, obviously,'' said Ali Khalifa Alkhalifa, vice-president of the Bahrain Football Association. ''I think it should have been a draw which would have pushed us through. But what's gone is gone.''

ESPNsoccernet Press Pass analyst and former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, who sat on the Trinidad and Tobago bench in Manama three years ago and went on to play in the 2006 World Cup, holds the opposite view of an incident that resembled George Best dispossessing Gordon Banks at Belfast's Windsor Park more than three decades earlier.

''I didn't even get out of my seat because I knew it would be blown as a foul,'' he said. ''They were trying to make something out of nothing. It would have been an absolute travesty if the goal had stood.''

Controversy seemed to follow Bahrain throughout the 2006 qualifying campaign with an earlier play-off against Uzbekistan replayed after a refereeing gaffe. This time, it went in Bahrain's favour.

Instead of ordering Uzbekistan to re-take a penalty in Tashkent because of encroachment, Japanese referee Toshimitsu Yoshida stunned everyone by giving Bahrain a free kick. Even though Uzbekistan won the match 1-0, FIFA nulled the result and ordered the qualifier to be replayed.

The Bahrainis ended up advancing to their meeting with Trinidad and Tobago on the away goals rule after a 1-1 result over two legs.

This time around, Bahrain are underdogs in the final phase of Asian World Cup qualifying which sees them at the bottom of Group A after a home defeat to Japan and an away draw with Qatar.

Overcoming the Socceroos - to whom they lost in qualifying in the 2007 Asian Cup with 3-1 and 2-0 defeats - would be a big step towards turning around their campaign.

''Winning this game on our land would be our best hope to pursue our qualification to the World Cup in a steady manner,'' said Ali Khalifa Alkhalifa. ''Gaining points from this game is must for us to keep our hopes still there.''

The Bahrainis are coached by veteran Czech manager Milan Macala, who's highly respected within the Gulf region, having also worked with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

GettyImagesMilan Macala has taken Bahrain to the brink of qualification.

Playing in their eighth World Cup campaign, Bahrain were fourth in the 2004 Asian Cup, the year they were voted FIFA's most improved team.

But apart from a 1-0 win in March against the Japanese in the previous phase of qualifiers, Macala's side has struggled for consistent results and were handed a deflating 2-1 loss to Azerbaijan in a home friendly last month.

Despite the game falling on a non-FIFA date making it difficult for Europe-based players, Hislop is predicting an Australian victory, but adds that the Socceroos will need to be on their guard.

''The Bahrainis are a good football team, very skilled and nippy and cannot and should not be taken for granted,'' he said. ''The downside is that they lack size, physically, and at times when we played them, they looked disorganised.''

In football-mad Bahrain where the European game is closely followed, the locals will have to overcome the fear factor as they face up to a star-studded Socceroos line-up whose 18-man squad on match day could include as many as 13 players with English Premier League, UEFA Champions League or Serie A experience.

The right combination of caution and attacking instinct would be needed for 34th ranked Australia to overcome Bahrain (72nd), Hislop added.

''Manama wasn't an overly intimidating place to go,'' he said. ''There's no reason why Australia shouldn't play with two up front. I see a 2-0 victory for the Socceroos, but not an easy 2-0.''

That kind of result would almost end Bahrain's chances of making amends for their 2006 heartbreak. Ali Khalifa Alkhalifa says that Macala's men are ready to cause an upset.

''Our chances are very tough if we talk by the language of numbers,'' he said. ''But we all know in football, anything can happen and we're giving it our best shot. Nowadays everything is possible.''

•  Sydney-born Jason Dasey is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.