With such a small population, Bahrain worries, as do most Gulf nations, that it may never have a national team competitive enough to get to the World Cup. Also, the life-style is such that young men give up playing sports when they're 25 or so, and World Cups are won by teams of 28-to-30-year-olds.
Dr. Ron Koller, a Sports Academy official in charge of program development in the Middle East, explains, "There isn't much motivation here for a kid to keep on with sports. There are no intercollegiate sports, for one thing, so any kid going to college is out of it. And there's no real professional sport. The ultimate is to be on a national team and get a little cash, a new suit and a lot of trips."
Lou Brocic, a former player and coach for Belgrade's Red Star team and now Bahrain's national soccer coach, says, "I have to rely on club players, who aren't the highest caliber because they can't train—they have other jobs. So while they're marvelous ball handlers, they have little game sense, no soccer sense. They're 50 years behind Europeans."
One of the finest soccer clubs in the Gulf is in the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, an hour's plane ride from Bahrain. Al Nasr (from the Arabic for "victory") Club is the brainchild and plaything of Shaikh Mana bin Khalifa al-Maktoum, known throughout Europe as "the football shaikh."
With a few other investors, Shaikh Mana is building a $70 million, 1,300-acre sports center. Already completed are a 15,000-seat stadium with an artificial-turf field, a private-membership clubhouse and a sports-medicine center. Other facilities, in a portion of the complex called Leisureland, include a pool, restaurants, fast-food counters, tennis and squash courts, a twin-cinema theater and a hotel. An amusement park has been completed: for $2.70 on weekdays and $5.40 on holidays, a visitor can enjoy a "wave" pool, rides, a theme park, shooting galleries, a 12-lane bowling center and, most improbably, ice skating in a full-size, 1,500-seat hockey arena. The English-based Rank Organization, manager of the park, is reluctant to reveal the cost of the refrigeration necessary to keep the rink frozen in a building where the ambient temperature is 83°.
"It's exciting to introduce a new sport," says Shaikh Mana, who clicks worry beads with one hand and smokes a cigarette with the other. His arena opened a year ago, with two Finnish teams appearing in the inaugural ice hockey game. Already a league of six teams—made up mostly of specially imported Canadians and Europeans—books the rink for two games a week.
The newest project in the Dubai sports center is a 3,000-seat tennis stadium for pro tennis tours. A government-sponsored tournament scheduled for Nov. 19 is offering a purse of $680,000, the biggest in the sport.
In Abu Dhabi, the most heavily populated of the emirates with 236,000 inhabitants, the first phase of an "Olympic city" has been completed: a 60,000-seat stadium, home of the national soccer team. "The ruler of Abu Dhabi makes enough in oil revenues. He can afford it," says Shaikh Mana. "The Olympic city will cost a billion dollars. Unfortunately, out of pure competitiveness, the people of Dubai wanted one, too. I talked them out of it. What are we going to do with two Olympic cities? In all the emirates we have a population of only 877,000. In my opinion, Abu Dhabi should have built a stadium for $100 million, given $100 million to the school system to ensure that there would be someone to play in it and given the remaining $800 million back to the government."
Though he preaches economy, the shaikh has a taste for American-style spectacle. He opened the stadium at his sports club in 1978 by hosting Liverpool, an English First Division soccer club, and marked the occasion with skydivers, fireworks and circus animals.
In 1977 Shaikh Mana brought the former manager of England's national team, Don Revie, to coach in the emirates for $1 million over four years. By the time Revie's contract was terminated last summer, he was discouraged. "Hardly any of the plans I put forward have been carried out," Revie said. "Basically, my idea was to bring in eight schoolboy-football experts to establish a sound training and coaching setup at that level—the big problem here is that football isn't really organized in the schools, and there's little P.E. training. When you look at most footballers here you'll see that their stomach and thigh muscles are virtually nonexistent. In terms of fitness, teamwork and tactical discipline, there's still an enormous amount to be done to catch up with countries such as Iraq, Kuwait and Iran."