On the face of it, Bahrain’s next few football world months are all about trying to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. But there are bigger issues at stake than the biggest sports tournament in the world.
The team’s chances of reaching Brazil would have been better if some of the team’s best and most experienced players were able to play on the team. But stars such as Mohammed Hubail (joint top scorer at the 2004 Asian Cup and well-known in continental football circles) his brother Alaa, and also Ali Saeed Abdullah and Sayed Mohammed Adnan, spent part of 2011 in jail.
The players, who like the majority of the population are Shia Muslim, were arrested by security forces for participating in pro-democracy protests aimed at the ruling Sunni Muslim elite. It all happened in April, at the height of the Arab Spring.
Not only that, the players – who were arrested along with dozens of other athletes – claim that they were tortured while in prison. The imprisonment of the footballers prompted FIFA to investigate whether the Bahrain government was guilty of interfering in the sport. According to the governing body’s statutes, such an act means that a federation will be suspended from the international game.
The Bahrain FA, whose president is Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, a member of the country’s ruling family and a probable candidate in the race to be the next president of the Asian Football Confederation, told the world governing body that no physical punishment had been meted out.
The players were then released and have been banned from their club teams, but are not yet back playing for their country (although whether they would want to do such a thing is anyway highly debatable anyway).
Last summer, I talked to the national team’s English coach, Peter Taylor, and while he denied that the ban extended to playing for Bahrain, he did admit that the club ban made it practically impossible to select them.
“The clubs suspended them, so until they are playing again, they can't get in the squad as I need to see them play,” he said.
In an ESPN documentary about the arrested athletes that was broadcast in November, Taylor said that he had never heard of the players that were imprisoned.
I was also present at a Doha press conference in November when Taylor was asked about the players by well-respected international journalist James Corbett, recording for the BBC. Taylor angrily retorted that he wasn’t going to answer any questions about politics, saying that he was a football coach and he was sticking to football.
That isn’t going too well. Bahrain came within minutes of qualifying for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, but they are unlikely to make even the final round of qualification for the 2014 edition.
If some of its best and most experienced players hadn’t been arrested, the team might be faring a little better. But with protests and clashes with security forces still ongoing, most Bahrainis have more important things on their mind.