Head coach Miroslav Soukup is determined to get a good result for Bahrain in the upcoming 23rd Gulf Cup, but his ambitions don’t end there.
The Czech tactician and former midfielder is also hopeful that his young but highly talented senior men’s national team players make the most of their experience in the competition, as they work towards a brighter future for the national game.
The Gulf Cup kicks off on December 22 and Bahrain is one of eight regional teams competing. For the event’s preliminary round, they have been drawn in Group ‘B’ alongside Iraq, Yemen and defending champions Qatar; while Group ‘A’ consists of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and hosts Kuwait.
Bahrain have never won the tournament since its inception in 1970, and while ending that drought is one of their goals this year, playing at a high level that they can be proud of is also a top priority.
“Many of our players have limited experience in the international game; for some, it might be their first time to play at the level of the Gulf Cup,” Soukup tells the GDN in an exclusive interview.
“But they need to play; they need to get this experience,” he stresses.
“Iraq, Yemen and Qatar are very strong teams and we know they will really want to go for the win and attack us. This is going to be a different test for our players – the competition is stronger, the atmosphere is bigger, and it will be a really tough challenge.
“But we need to start them playing games like these and continue at a high level. The players must gain some good experience from the competition.”
Soukup has ruled out the possibility of calling up any of Bahrain’s more experienced veterans for the Gulf Cup.
“We must support and we must trust our young players,” Soukup explains. “If we bring some older players back for this tournament, the younger guys will think that the coach does not believe in them and does not trust them.
“We also cannot only think about getting a good result for the Gulf Cup, but also for the future. Give the players a chance to grow.
“Experience is only one point from a number of factors. I, myself, have many years of good experience, but can I play?” explains the 52-year-old. “I cannot run, I cannot move, I cannot challenge because I am old. Our young guys must use this as their motivation. They must understand that this is their chance, and they must raise their level of football that is worthy of the international game.”
Soukup’s strategy falls in line with the plan of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) to further develop the sport at all levels of play nationally.
“Now is a period for change,” Soukup explains. “We must put the team with the best prospects in the squad. We must not look only at each player’s quality in football, but also look at their character and team work.
“We want to systematically build our team like this, and by gaining experience from hard tournaments like Gulf Cup, it will be good for preparing our team for the future.”
Soukup has a particular plan for the senior squad, which involves having three top players from different age-levels ready for each position on the team.
“For example, we have three left-backs,” he explains. “One is now in optimal age, maybe 27 or 28, to play at the international level. Second is a very good prospect aged 23 or 24, and third is a player we can watch growing from the under-19 level, whom we can eventually prepare for the next period.
“This is the way we build our national team. If we have three best players in one position, but they are all of the same age, what can we do about the future?
“Nobody has taken this approach before, but it is the way we are doing it now and we believe this is how we best build for the future.”
The future holds many possibilities for the national team. Contending for the title at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and qualifying for Bahrain’s first-ever Fifa World Cup in 2022 are just two of the major targets that are coming up over the next couple of years, and for the national team to achieve those, changes must be widespread and not only with the national team, Soukup says.
“The BFA wants to change something and they are doing it now,” he says. “From the period we last came close to qualifying for the World Cup, we have not been in the same position. Bahrain has changed six coaches since then. Not all of them were bad; all those coaches had quality, but it’s not just about the coach all time; a change must come to the system.
“Now we are implementing many changes, like reducing foreign players to give more of a chance for Bahraini talents; and improving on one of our biggest problems, which is why we still do not have a professional league. We are now thinking of these points, and we are changing something for the future.”
Soukup cites the model of Iceland as an example Bahrain can follow.
“Ten years ago, Iceland was around 130th on the Fifa Rankings and we were 90 and contending for a World Cup place,” he explains. “Now, Iceland is in the World Cup and we are not. We face similar problems as they do; here it is very hot in summer and it is difficult to play outdoors. There, it is the same situation except that it is very cold for six months of the year and it is not an ideal situation for football, not good to play for training. But Iceland thought what they really can do all around with courses, meetings, building facilities and halls to train inside whenever it was too cold.
“The way to succeed is not short. Only those that work over a long period can succeed, and we are moving towards that.”