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.