Bahrain takes on Iran in 2014 WCup qualifier
Bahrain will take on longtime rival Iran next week in a World Cup qualifier that is both a key game in the fight to reach the 2014 tournament and one that will be played amid rising tensions between the two neighbors.
FIFA has appointed a security expert to help prepare for a ''high risk'' match. Iranian protesters chanting ''Death To Saudi'' clashed with police earlier this year when Iran's Piroozi hosted Saudi club Al-Ittihad. Saudi Arabia is a key ally of Bahrain.
Tensions between the two nations has been heightened by political protests in Bahrain by the largely Shiite population against the Sunni monarchy.
Bahrain has accused Iran of encouraging the unrest, while Iran has denounced the Bahrain government's crackdown on protesters.
Next Tuesday's game is the first of two in the next month between the two teams who both expect to advance from Group E to the next stage of qualifiers.
Neither side has talked about the political implications of the match, with Bahrain coach Peter Taylor saying he would only answer football questions in a recent interview with The Associated Press. He also said the safety of his players wasn't something he had dwelled upon. Gaining a good result was his primary focus.
''We're playing against the favorites. There is no doubt about that,'' said Taylor, an Englishman who took over the team in July. ''They are favorites for the group. It will be the toughest game ... If we could get a draw in Iran, that would be a fantastic result.''
Bahrain, a country of just 525,000, just barely missed out on qualification for the past two World Cups. But since then, it has endured a series of injuries and is now on its third coach since the loss to New Zealand for the final spot in the 201 World Cup.
It failed to make it out of the group stage in this year's Asian Cup, has fallen to 102nd in the FIFA world rankings and has endured the loss of several players including stars Alaa and Mohammed Hubail who were punished for taking part in the anti-government protests.
Taylor said the team's fitness was a question mark when he took over but had since improved, and the team has opened its World Cup campaign impressively with a 2-0 away win over Indonesia and then drawing with neighbor Qatar.
''We are fitter now but we still need to improve, to get better,'' Taylor said. ''But we are OK. I'm not saying we are the best team in the world but we have improved. We do realize Iran will be a massive test.''
Iran, in contrast, has seen its fortunes on the rise. After failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, the three-time World Cup qualifiers reached the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in January and has risen in the rankings in the past year to 50th. It too opened its World Cup campaign with a draw against Qatar and then a victory over Indonesia.
Iran's coach Carlos Queiroz - formerly manager of Portugal, Real Madrid and assistant at Manchester United - said earlier this week that Bahrain will be its stiffest challenge to date.
''Bahrain's coach has said he comes here to beat us. It's normal, each coach wants to win but we are not scared of them,'' Queiroz said. ''We will answer them with our performance on the ground.''