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Oct 23, 2012

Taylor's troubled reign in Bahrain

It is easy to spot the odd one out: Southend, Leicester, England Under-21s, Crystal Palace, Bradford City, Bahrain. Even under normal circumstances, to move from the English lower leagues to one of the Middle East's best national teams would be something of a culture shock; to do so with the Arab Spring almost at its height meant it was always likely that Peter Taylor's tenure would be remembered more for what happened off the pitch than on it.

Taylor, a former England player who also took control of the national team for one game against Italy in 2000, arrived in Manama in July 2011, when it was still a focus of protests by the Shia majority who wanted a greater say in how the country was run. The ruling Sunni royal family put down the demonstrations in a brutal manner. The situation may have slipped out of the headlines, but that doesn't mean the unrest has stopped.

What has that got to do with the ex-Tottenham winger? That depends on your viewpoint. Taylor claimed nothing at all. "Many people have asked me about the problems in Bahrain but I always say to them: 'Look, I am just a football manager and if I can help people feel better by getting a couple of good results then that is what I am here to do,'" he told this writer soon after arriving. His comments about the subject became terser as people continued to quiz him about the situation.

That was because there were plenty who disagreed with Taylor. He was, after all, coaching the national team, and his direct employer, the chairman of the Bahrain FA, was a high-profile member of the ruling family. And this was no remote political turmoil: it had practical consequences for the national team.

In February 2011, five months before Taylor's arrival, over 150 athletes, including members of the national team, joined a protest. Shortly afterwards, Mohammed Hubail and his brother Alaa, as well as Ali Saeed Adbullah and Sayed Mohammed Adnan, were detained by security forces and then, it is claimed, tortured.

"I served my country with love and will continue as much as I can," Alaa Hubail said in August 2011. "But I won't forget the experience 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."

Release did not mean a recall to the national team for the footballers. Taylor claimed they were not banned from playing for their country but, as they were banned from playing for their clubs, the effect was pretty much the same.

"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. "The federation has said that if I do so and I want to pick them, I can."

In November, ESPN aired a documentary about the plight of the Bahraini athletes. When asked about Alaa Hubail, the country's leading goalscorer and the star of the team for years, Taylor claimed not to know who the interviewer was talking about.

Post-documentary, any queries were given the shortest shrift. Taylor would only answer 'football questions' - although, when Formula One was debating whether to return to the country for the 2012 Grand Prix after giving it a miss in 2011, Taylor publicly supported the race, saying the unrest had been overstated and all he had seen was a policeman chasing a boy with tear gas.

It remains to be seen whether Hubail, or any of the others, don the red shirt in the future - or whether they even want to - but, looking back, it is clear that they were missed. If Bahrain really wanted to qualify for a first World Cup, arresting a number of their best players was hardly the best preparation.

After reaching the semi-final of the 2004 Asian Cup, Bahrain came close to reaching the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. They were only denied their debut appearances on the global stage by narrow play-off defeats against Trinidad & Tobago and then New Zealand; had they succeeded, they would have become the country with the smallest population to qualify for the tournament.

The Bahrain FA, impressed by Taylor's work with the England Under-21 team, wanted a place at the 2014 World Cup and someone who could help a group of promising youngsters to develop. If the Reds could just get to Brazil in 2014, it could be the springboard for more lasting success.

In the end, they didn't even make the final round of qualification - the first such failure since 1998. The group in the penultimate stage was not easy. Iran were always expected to finish first and did so, handing Bahrain a painful 6-0 defeat in Tehran on the way. Qatar were the problem. With Indonesia earmarked to finish bottom, the two tiny Gulf States were set to battle it out for a place in the final ten.

Going into the final match, the odds were very much against Taylor. Bahrain had to defeat Indonesia by nine goals and hope Qatar lost in Tehran. In the end, an 86th-minute equaliser saved the Qataris, and they needed saving as Bahrain thrashed Indonesia 10-0.

There were immediate suspicions of match-fixing. With all that was going on in Bahrain, and the links between the government and the federation, many alleged foul play, especially after the Indonesian goalkeeper was sent off in the second minute. FIFA investigated, but came up with nothing. Taylor strenuously denied any impropriety.

Preparations were starting to be made for the start of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup, but now it will not be Taylor at the helm. A 6-2 friendly thrashing at the hands of UAE on October 16 caused the axe to fall.

"I hold my hands up - I'm not making excuses," Taylor said. "We've only won so many matches in so many matches. It's the federation that have decided to change because recent results have not been good."

Pure football reasons, then - ones understood by all in the game all over the world - but, for many in Bahrain at the moment, a concept of football in isolation does not exist. In that country, no matter what Taylor said, separating football from politics is impossible.

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