2004 is a year Bahrainis will never forget.
In that year, China hosted Asia's biggest football tournament - the Asian Cup of Nations. Bahrain, with its golden generation of players, shocked the whole continent with a fairy tale run to the semi-finals.
A historic achievement for the tiny nation, more known for its natural pearls than its achievements on the football pitch.
With the continued progress of Bahraini football, which included two historic World Cup play-offs, nothing looked to be stopping this momentum from pushing forward.
But that wasn’t to be the case.
The nation was about to be hit with its biggest crisis since gaining independence in 1971. A crisis that polarised one nation - divided by religious and political beliefs - with one group supporting the government and royal family mainly comprising of the Sunni minority, and the other against them.
After the successful downfalls of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, anti-government supporters took to the streets in Bahrain.
Mainly Shia protestors flooded the social media networks with messages of a huge, pro-democracy protest on February 14 in the now torn down, Pearl Roundabout.
What first started as peaceful rallies calling for government improvements, took a turn for the worst. Three days into the protests, gunshots were fired at the Pearl Roundabout by government forces leaving four people dead and hundreds more injured, in a day now widely known as 'Bloody Thursday'.
After the upturn of events, protesters heightened their demands, calling for the end of Al Khalifa rule of the island – a demand not taken lightly by government supporters who took to the streets themselves organising pro-government rallies near Al –Fateh Mosque, one of Bahrain’s most popular landmarks.
In the midst of all the turmoil, football got involved. FIFA has long voiced that football and politics don't mix - well, not in this case.
Pictures and videos of well-known and popular football players like Ala'a and Mohammed Hubail, and Sayed Mohammed Adnan - all Shias - joining the anti-government protests spread all over Bahraini forums and social media sites like wildfire, angering many who once idolised such figures.
Players who took part in the protests were labeled 'traitors' and 'criminals', with many calling for their arrest.
"I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can... But I won’t forget the experience which I went through, for all my life"
Former Bahrain striker, Ala'a Hubail
Amidst the outrage, Ala'a and cousin, Mohamed, were among the many sporting figures arrested. While Sayed Mohamed Adnan - who already was receiving plenty of stick for his unforgettable penalty miss in the final World Cup qualifier, and who lost a cousin as a result of the crackdown - fled to Australia, signing on with Brisbane Roar.
"This (the Arab Spring) had never happened, all the countries saying to the king or government they want them to step down. Our situation was difficult; it was just to fix the government. Everybody wants a good life and that's it," Adnan said in an interview with The Brisbane Times.
"My cousin is dead – he received one bullet in his head – I started thinking 'why don't we do something to stop this killing?'.
"But I didn't go there to say 'because you killed my cousin, I go to protest'. I go because we don't want any problems with each other. It doesn't matter – Sunni, Shia, Christian – we don't care. We just want to live as before and respect everyone."
After FIFA pressure, the charges against Ala'a and Mohamed, and other sporting figures, were dropped and Ala'a left to ply his trade in Oman with Al Taleea.
”I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can.” Ala'a stated after his arrest in his hometown of Sitra.
“But I won’t forget the experience which I went through, for all my life. What happened to me was a cost of fame. Participating in the athletes’ rally was not a crime.”
Hubali's respectable showing in Oman harboured thoughts of a potential return to the Bahrain national team setup.
"Who doesn't think about representing his country? Besides, I didn't retire internationally like some have reported. But, in the end, it's up to the manager and I have to respect that."
Unfortunately, we may never see him again in the red jersey of Bahrain. Bahrain is currently going through a period of transition. Under the now-sacked Peter Taylor, many well-known names including the popular Mohammed Salmeen and the now-retired Talal Yousif, weren't picked for the squad.
Bahrain failed to reach the final stage of World Cup qualifying despite the memorable, albeit controversial 10-0 victory over Indonesia. And just before the Gulf Cup, the Red Devils suffered a humiliating 6-2 defeat to the UAE, which all but ended Taylor's short-lived rein at the helm of the national side.
Things weren't looking good for Bahrain, especially with the Gulf Cup - which they were to host in January 2013 - on the horizon. Many players weren't getting playing time in a league dogged by postponements due to a lack of suitable football pitches and continuing protests.
| Coach Gabriel Calderon (2ndR) celebrates with Bahrain players after defeating Qatar 1-0 in the Gulf Cup [AFP]
All these factors culminated in Bahrain's recent poor run of form and a rather dim outlook of their chances of success in the Gulf Cup. However, its youth side – led by former Tottenham coach, Anthony Hudson - has been performing above expectations by finishing as runners-up in the U-23 Gulf Cup tournament, their highest ever finish.
“I think the youth of Bahrain are very promising,” Hudson told Al Jazeera.
“They have good ability, and great personalities and spirit. They want to learn and improve. Biggest issues are, some of the young players getting first team football.”
With the Gulf Cup months away, a new managerial appointment was sealed with Gabriel Calderon – who was well known in the region leading national sides including Saudi Arabia.
In his first steps as manager and ahead of the tournament, Calderon re-selected established names like Mohammed Salmeen, who was frozen out under Peter Taylor to boost a young, relatively inexperienced squad going through a re-building and transitional period.
As the Gulf Cup commenced, the Red Devils didn't start off on the right foot with a dire goalless draw against Oman irking supporters, while they missed a hatful of chances in an unlucky defeat to eventual champions, UAE. They managed to go through thanks to a controversial penalty against Qatar, but bowed out against Iraq in a semi-final shootout.
Despite the respectable showing, the hosts were on the receiving end of a humiliating 6-1 loss to Kuwait to leave the tournament empty-handed, and in bitter disappointment.
"Arresting some of your best players is never a good idea and as Bahrain were punching above their weight anyway by coming very close to qualifying for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, it was even worse," Asian football expert John Duerden concluded.
"Failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup confirmed that the team is fading as a force. The 2013 Gulf Cup did nothing to dispel such feelings and there is a long road ahead for the national team. Only a united Bahrain has a chance of success and at the moment, the country is far from that."
Omar Almasri is a football writer/blogger based in Bahrain. He mainly writes about the beautiful sport in the Middle East/North African region, and how it's intertwined with the region's political issues and arena. He's also the owner of a site about everything football, O-Posts (http://www.o-posts.net).
Follow Omar Almasri on Twitter @OAlmasri.
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