Monday, January 21, 2013
A trip to Bahrain to see eight games in the 2013 Gulf Cup.
This was the 21st edition of the Cup, a competition between the eight nations adjacent to the Arabian Gulf (excluding Iran)
HIstorically Kuwait, the holders, are by far the most successful country having won the title ten times followed by the ostensible regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iraq with three wins apiece.
Bahrain hosted the first event in 1970 and they, together with lowly ranked Yemen, are the only countries never to have lifted the trophy..
8th January Oman 1 Qatar 2 c.10,000 National Stadium
My first game and the second group match for these teams.
Free entry for the fans ensured a noisy, lively atmosphere especially for the second match of this double-header.
There was always a constant backdrop of Arabian rhythms.
The stadium comprises a large main stand with a curving roof and red/white seats.
Opposite is a much smaller section of open seating. The ends, apart from a scoreboard, are empty.
Omanis and Qataris were next to each other.
The result was somewhat of a travesty as Oman dominated the first half and it was hard to see Qatar offering much except for long balls up to Sebastian Soria.
But they scored from a dubious penalty and though this was deservedly equalised via another debatable spot-kick (the Yemeni referee had a mixed game) Qatar had the last word when a free kick found sub. Mohammed Jeddo unmarked and he shot home at the far post.
The Omani coach, Paul Le Guen, was described afterwards as speechless and that was understandable.
During the latter stages the main stand filled up with a large UAE contingent plus the locals for the second game.
Bahrain 1 UAE 2 35,000 National Stadium
This loss for the home side means they needed to beat Qatar to have any chance of progressing whilst UAE moved through to the semis after their two wins.
At least Bahrain scored and that ensured plenty of noise for a period during the second half.
UAE looked to have a talented midfielder in Omar Abdulrahman and he, like most of these players, currently plays in his own country.
Abdulrahman, with a clever run, set up the winner with five minutes remaining.
Before that mistakes had lead to both goals, the Bahraini equaliser coming from Al Malood after a defender error.
Another sub. Jaycee John (ex-Nigerian) had a few chances for glory but he was unable to deliver and the useful looking UAE team moved on.
Following these matches, and after considering other options, I settled for the relative tranquillity of the Regency Intercontinental with League Cup on the TV and some reasonable (European-style) musical entertainment.
The alternative local bars, though much cheaper, were either very noisy or seedy or both.
9th January Iraq 1 Kuwait 0 12.000 Khalifa Stadium, Isa
Another double header in the smaller Khalifa stadium, not too far from the main stadium to the south of Manama centre.
Both these teams had their noisy groups of fans and they filled up most of the ground.
Tall powerful striker Younes Mahmoud, as in previous years and not least in the Asian Cup win of 2007, was the focal point for the Iraqis.
His control of a cross and shot that went in off the Kuwaiti goalie decided the outcome.
The Kuwaitis, the holders of the Cup, never lived up to that reputation with just a couple of decent shots to show for their efforts.
Iraq were better in possession and generally looked more likely to score.
At the end the winners celebrated wildly with their fans since their two wins meant they were through to the semi-finals.
Saudi Arabia 2 Yemen 0 15,000 Khalifa Stadium
And so the Iraqi and Kuwaiti fans departed and they were replaced by a largish group from nearby Saudi and some enthusiastic Yemenis.
In this game Saudi had the edge throughout with Yemen mostly relying on breakaways and efforts by their captain Akram Al Worafi.
Despite looking reminiscent of Egypt in their red and white kit Yemen didn’t have a Mohamed Aboutrika to work any magic.
A header from a left wing cross and a shot near the end sealed the win for the men in green.
The Saudis, coached by a Denzel Washington-like (greyer and heavier) Frank Rijkaard, thus secured their first win.
After this one I struggled to find any taxis for the trip home (public transport was either nonexistent or very hard to locate) eventually getting a ride to near the centre of Manama from where I had to get another taxi to my hotel.
As per usual the Regency offered some relative peace to enjoy a beer and the resident group.
11th January Bahrain 1 Qatar 0 30,000 National Stadium
Bahrain needed to win their final group game to progress to the semi-finals.
Although they benefited from a penalty awarded very severely when a defender with his back to the ball handled a header they did deserve the victory.
Qatar as in the previous game tended towards limited ambition.
Sebastian Soria up-front looked too static and he only offered one turn and shot that clipped the bar. Otherwise Qatar never really looked like equalising and if anything Bahrain were more likely to add to their opener.
So the home team, coached by Argentinian Calderon, could celebrate alongside their fans who had turned out in good numbers despite the (relative) cold.
Afterwards there was another struggle to find a taxi and I eventually got back to the Manama Suq area by 8.30pm. This time I settled for a chicken Shawarma (kebab) before having an early night.
15th January UAE 1 Kuwait 0 20,000 National Stadium
And so on to the two semi-finals.
The first one was settled by a late goal put in at the far post by Ahmed Khalil, converting a cross from the left.
In a game of few chances both sides had their moments but the Emirates team had the edge in possession and they had the best player on show in Omar Abdulrahman..
Looking like a smaller version of Marouane Fellaini he would not look out of place in a top Spanish (or maybe Premiership ?) team with his fine left foot and excellent control.
His prompting and threaded passes often caused Kuwait problems.
Kuwait did remain in what was a very watchable encounter until those last few minutes but they would go out to the eventual winners.
Much celebration at the end amongst the large numbers of UAE fans (apparently 28 planes made the journey from Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and a quick exit for the Kuwaitis many of whom had driven the four hours or so through Saudi Arabia to get to Manama.
Bahrain 1 Iraq 1 (Iraq won 4-2 on penalties) 35,000 National Stadium
The home fans packed into the National Stadium hoping to see their team make it through to the final and possibly win their first Gulf Cup.
It was not to be but they came very close.
Iraq had taken the lead in the first half through their captain Younes Mahmoud who showed good strength to out-muscle a defender and shoot home right footed.
The home side struggled to maintain a rhythm in a generally staccato match with far too many stoppages.
But they were always pressing the Iraqis and their spirit paid off when Husain Ali Baba scored from a free kick on the hour.
That was the first goal Iraq had conceded in the competition.
And they probably should have let in another during extra time when Bahrain sub. Abdulla Yusuf had his chance for glory - but he shot over.
Iraq seemed content with penalties and their experience told eventually, with a Mahmoud ‘Panenka’ chip and, after a delay and some confusion, a shot into the corner from their goalie Noor Sabri.
Sabri then led the players on a celebratory run around the stadium.
So no delight for the locals but it had been a vibrant atmosphere throughout on a fairly cold night.
Iraq would go on to the final but lose out to the UAE.
I made a brisk exit and was thankful that there were taxis waiting for my trip to the airport and the return to the UK.
To further reflect on the visit..
Bahrain like other countries in the region has used the US template with large skyscrapers, coffee outlets and shopping malls. Which certainly present an impressive backdrop and some conducive surroundings but the downside is that all this is built around the car.
Using public transport can be a trial with limited information, infrequent buses and poor coverage.
Taxis (formal or informal) often become the realistic transport of choice and where buses can be used any additional walking can be problematic with patchy pedestrianised areas.
However in January, aside from the wind and dust, the temperatures are reasonably mild although the English language paper described 15 degrees as ‘cold’.
Again, as in Qatar, the populace is comprised of large numbers of workers from the sub-continent and the Philippines.
Due to the relative cool the fashion accessory of choice was ear muffs.
Near my hotel, close to the Ministry of Ministerial Affairs (or similar) was a cluster of small shops and some downmarket hotels with bars blaring out Bengali music or other disco varieties.
What you can get is good value (i.e. 300 fils or 50 pence) kebabs and some very tasty Asian food.
On one bus trip to Isa Town I noticed vast swathes of partly removed graffiti, that and the occasional tyre-burning provided a reminder of the political unrest about a year previously.
As for other interesting sights the Bahrain Fort and Museum illustrate and describe the previous civilisations with some well presented displays and English text.
The Bahrain National Museum, though a tricky location to get to on foot, also provides excellent descriptions of local life through the ages.
more pictures at http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/1725877774