x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Macala has weight of a country on his shoulders

Milan Macala is not a man known for his secrecy. The straight talking Czech coach of the Bahraini national team has been coaching in the Gulf for long enough to know how to survive the pressure cooker atmosphere of Middle Eastern football.

MANAMA // Milan Macala is not a man known for his secrecy. The gruff, straight talking Czech coach of the Bahraini national team has been coaching in the Gulf for long enough (15 occasionally fraught years) to know how to survive the pressure cooker atmosphere of Middle Eastern football: the heat, the impatient pressure from the governing body but, most importantly, dealing diplomatically with an acerbic press who make British tabloids look tame in comparison. But this time things are different. This time the weight, not just of expectation, but also redemption, lies on his shoulders.

"I will speak to you for five minutes, but that's it," he barked down the phone. "The training session will be closed so you won't be allowed in or to speak to the players, OK?" OK. A few hours in Manama illuminates the Bahraini mindset ahead of the first leg of their intercontinental World Cup play-off against New Zealand. Every other billboard on the Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman highway is adorned with a football; the TV and radio brims with the minutiae of the team's preparations; taxi drivers readily spill their fear of failure; the country's six daily newspapers, and their fat sports supplements, carry every conceivable angle.

The obsession with today's match is not surprising. A potential place in the World Cup finals would elicit excitement in even the most perennial of qualifiers. But it is more than that. Burnt into the Bahraini psyche is the failure of four years ago, when they lost at home to Trinidad and Tobago. "After what happened four years ago we are desperate," explained Sheikh Ali Khalifa al Khalifa Sheikh, the vice president of the Bahraini Football Association.

"Every Bahraini is desperate to go to the World Cup for the first time. It's a dream for every Bahraini, we have been through hell." Macala has a tough job trying to dampen the expectations, but he is acutely aware of the stakes. "We can beat New Zealand, yes, but it will be very tough," he says when we finally meet at the National Stadium. "50 per cent of this team played against Trinidad and Tobago and you know what happened there. We need 100 per cent concentration for 90 minutes. New Zealand has players in England, in Australia, in America. This is a country where sport is taken very seriously."

Despite the training session being closed, the local press swarm the training pitch, ignoring Bahrain's harassed press officer. It takes Macala to stride over and herd the press pack out himself. The trepidation appears to be misplaced. Even though the majority of the Bahraini team play for amateur clubs, they will never get a better chance to reach the finals, playing a beatable New Zealand team, hyped in their local press by an antipodean certainty of victory.

"I think they [the government] will declare a national holiday if we win," explained Ahmed Jaffer, a sports writer for the daily Albilad newspaper. Qualification, redemption and an unexpected day off. You can not get better motivation than that. @Email:sports@thenational.ae Bahrain v New Zealand, 7.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1 & ART Sport 1