Macala climbing Gulf power ladder
All Milan Macala had to do to gain entry into the prestigious ranks of Bahrain's most powerful men was lead this tiny Gulf nation to the brink of World Cup qualification. Some weeks ahead of last Saturday's World Cup play-off against New Zealand, the Czech coach was named as number ten in the list of 'The most influential 50 people on the island' compiled by Arabian Business magazine.
So how does a merely mortal football coach climb to such astonishing heights in the country's power hierarchy? And - perhaps more importantly - can Macala now lead Bahrain into the hallowed grounds of a first ever World Cup participation?
Having come excruciatingly close to a place in Germany 2006, only to lose to Caribbean minnows Trinidad and Tobago in a heart-stopping play-off defeat, the Bahrainis have somehow managed to place themselves before the final hurdle yet again. This is somewhat surprising, given that they are hardly the big boys of Asian football. While Bahrain tussle with New Zealand over two legs, such traditional West Asian powers as Iran or Saudi Arabia watch enviously from the sidelines, condemned to see the World Cup unfold on television.
After Saturday's 0-0 home draw against the Kiwis, some say Bahrain will be doing the same come next summer. But don't write this wily, uncomfortable side off just yet. The trip to New Zealand in November may be a tricky one given the length of the flight and the failure to score at home, but I have seen the Bahrainis come through too many extremely challenging situations to discard the possibility of a fifth Asian side in South Africa 2010.
Take the play-off to reach the final play-off (a lot of play-offs, but Macala will take the ticket any way it comes), against Saudi Arabia. After a further 0-0 stalemate in Bahrain, there was that unbelievably dramatic game in Saudi Arabia where the visitors stole the game by scoring in the very last minute to seal their passage with a 2-2 away goals victory.
Then, a few months earlier, I watched their 1-1 away draw in Qatar, in which the Bahrainis were reduced to ten men and were most deservedly a goal down before stealing what turned out to be a crucial point in the final qualifying group. It was the Qataris who dominated that match, creating an endless series of scoring opportunities. But Bahrain picked up the point.
This is a determined side that takes some beating. You could even call them the 'draw kings' of the Gulf. It will not have escaped Macala that his side can qualify for the World Cup with four draws in a row: a scoring draw in New Zealand next month will see his team through to South Africa. So what is the secret to this astonishing success of a tiny and quite unheralded football nation?
The 66-year old tactician has been allowed to work continuously with the side since taking over just ahead of the 2007 Asian Cup - where his team disappointed greatly. Still, the Bahrainis kept their faith in Macala despite some determined calls for his head (figuratively speaking). In a region where coaches are often fired with astonishing frequency, two years can seem a very long time.
This continuity has its obvious advantages, as former Real Madrid sweeper and current coaching journeyman Uli Stielike explained to me.
"At [Quatari League side] Al Arabi, I think in three years ten coaches have been fired. That brings with it a lot of problems,'' Steike said. "If you keep changing coaches and every coach has a different view of what's going on in training, matches, and the system used, then there is no calm and stability in the team.
"This also takes the responsibility away from the players, because it is always the same guy - the coach - to blame. Those mainly responsible - the players - are taken out of the responsibility."
In a recent poll on the Asian Football Confederation website, almost 40 % of those asked why Saudi Arabia failed to qualify for South Africa pointed to the frequent coaching changes. In Bahrain, the persistent faith in Macala has clearly paid off, setting an interesting example for the entire region. Coaching continuity has catapulted this small country to astonishing heights.
Macala has built a cohesive team with a number of naturalised players providing much-needed qualitative input. Jaycee John and Abdullah Baba Fatadi are two useful Nigerian born players, while Fawzi Aish and Abdullah Omar come from Morocco and Chad respectively. But perhaps most importantly, Macala has instilled in his side a spirit which has seen them come back from the most daunting of deficits to stand at the door to World Cup qualification.
For the latter reason I will do something sports journalists normally tend not to do, and put my neck on the line: Bahrain will qualify for their first ever World Cup on November 14.
Sorry Kiwis, I'm not even saying this just because I'm ESPN Soccernet's Asia columnist, though I do expect a barrage of messages to come my way if the All Whites qualify. But if, as I predict, Bahrain do make it to South Africa, you won't have to look at any lists to guess who will be the most influential man on the island.