RIFFA, BAHRAIN // By 3pm, the flags that adorned the walls and fences of the National Stadium had been meticulously hung. Usually, the groundsmen on flag duty busy themselves in silence, but not this time. With three-and-a half-hours before kick off thousands had already poured into the ground in anticipation of Bahrain's first leg World Cup play-off against New Zealand, creating an incessant, deafening din that did not stop until the final whistle.
Yet the red and white standard didn't flutter alone. Flags from Sudan, Palestine, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, among others, flew in solidarity. The message of Arab fraternity was clear. If Bahrain were to be the region's sole representative at the World Cup finals, then the Middle East would rally behind them. "They play good football and Bahrain is like a second country to us," said 24-year-old Abdulatif Hamed, a Kuwaiti who had flown to the game with friends. "The whole of the Arab world will be behind Bahrain."
British expatriates, too, wearing England tops and red scarves, weaved through the crowd. One sign behind the royal box read: "Argentina is with Bahrain." Even the odd group of US serviceman from the island's huge navel base nervously took their seats, happy to lay low and bask in the temporary cover that New Zealand's away contingent afforded them. By kick off the stadium had exceeded its 35,000 limit as hundreds of fans filled each spare walkway in the main stand. In conditions so humid you could almost see the air, Bahrain somehow contrived to leave with a goalless draw, despite dominating a New Zealand side visibly affected by the conditions.
The pivotal moment came when Salman Isa was put through on goal and, after rounding the keeper, smashed the ball against a post. At the full-time whistle the Bahraini players trudged off the pitch, grime faced, knowing a wonderful opportunity had been lost. Isa lay shattered and motionless by the bench, his blank, thousand-yard stare a depressing moment of calm amongst a storm of Kiwi celebration.
For the All Whites it tasted like victory. The players ran to their jubilant section in the corner of the stadium, just 1,000 strong, to link arms and acknowledge what must count as one of the longest away trips in international football. "Any team who have beaten Saudi Arabia back-to-back will be tough. Australia found it hard too," said Kiwi coach Ricki Herbert as he celebrated pitchside. "We wanted to take the tie back home to have a chance and we did that."
He was less circumspect when he thought he was out of earshot. "We've done it!" he shouted whilst bear hugging members of the New Zealand delegation. "We're going all the way now. We've done it!" Kiwi overconfidence might be misplaced. A Bahraini goal in Wellington would mean the All Whites would have to score twice. And as their stunning comeback against Saudi Arabia suggests, they have no problem scoring away from home.
Outside the ground the crowd trickled home, muted but unbowed, dragging their multinational flags behind them in the sand. "0-0 is not a bad score and it's not a good score but there is a saying in Bahrain that we play better outside of Bahrain than in it," shrugged Mohammed Alwadhi, a 17-year-old student making the long trek back to Manama. "Even if we put a goal above the goal we wouldn't have found it."
It could have been a very different story, but the World Cup dream, now a dream for the whole of the Middle East, not just for Bahrain, is still very much alive. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org