Waleed Al Hayam of Bahrain during the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup Group A match against Qatar at Al Bayt Stadium on November 30, 2021, in Al Khor, Qatar. /CFP

Waleed Al Hayam of Bahrain during the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup Group A match against Qatar at Al Bayt Stadium on November 30, 2021, in Al Khor, Qatar. /CFP

It was in Qatar in 2011, when Bahrain defender Waleed Al Hayam got his first taste of football at the highest level after being called up to the national team squad for the AFC Asian Cup. Thirteen years later, the seasoned defender is back in Qatar for his fourth straight Asian Cup campaign. With 104 international appearances to his name and multiple honors, including the 2019 Gulf Cup with Bahrain and the 2021 AFC Cup with his club Al-Muharraq, the 32-year-old will be key in the Juan Antonio Pizzi-coached side’s hopes of making it to the group stages.

Placed in a tricky group alongside South Korea, Malaysia and Jordan, Al Hayam will know that it won’t be an easy proposition. Speaking to CGTN ahead of the tournament, Al Hayam said the team’s first and foremost objective heading into the tournament is to secure a spot in the last 16. “Our first goal that we are focusing on achieving now is to obtain one of the qualifying spots for the next round of the tournament, and then we will think about (other things) after that,” Al Hayam said during the interaction.

While South Korea will be the toughest opponent on paper in the group stages, Al Hayam stressed that Malaysia and Jordan are no pushovers.

Waleed Al Hayam of Bahrain (R) competes for the ball with Ali Mabkhout of the UAE during an AFC Asian Cup Group A match at Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. /CFP

Waleed Al Hayam of Bahrain (R) competes for the ball with Ali Mabkhout of the UAE during an AFC Asian Cup Group A match at Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. /CFP

Waleed Al Hayam of Bahrain (R) competes for the ball with Ali Mabkhout of the UAE during an AFC Asian Cup Group A match at Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. /CFP

“In such a tournament, there is no easy game. We will start with the strongest competitor, South Korea, which has strong elements, expert coach and players, and great international experience,” Al Hayam said. “We previously faced them in the last tournament in the round of 16 (in 2019), and we made a great performance against them, but unfortunately we lost 2-1 after extra time,” he recalled.

“We also met Malaysia in the qualifiers for this tournament. They were a difficult and well-organized competitor, and it was a strong match that ended with our victory 2-1,” said Al Hayam.

“We have also met the Jordanian national team several times in recent years and know each other very well, so we realize that the challenge is great in this tournament, but we will strive to achieve victory and advance to the next round,” he added.

It was in 2004 that Bahrain stunned more fancied teams and reached the semifinals of the Asian Cup. The team went on to miss World Cup qualification by a whisker in both 2006 and 2010, losing closely fought inter-continental playoffs on both occasions.

Bahrain players line up for a team photo ahead of the 25th Gulf Nations Cup match against the UAE at Basra International Stadium in Basra, Iraq, on January 07, 2023. /CFP

Bahrain players line up for a team photo ahead of the 25th Gulf Nations Cup match against the UAE at Basra International Stadium in Basra, Iraq, on January 07, 2023. /CFP

Bahrain players line up for a team photo ahead of the 25th Gulf Nations Cup match against the UAE at Basra International Stadium in Basra, Iraq, on January 07, 2023. /CFP

While Bahrain will be looking to rediscover those glory days, Al Hayam is confident that the current crop of players will serve the team well in the coming years. “Our team currently has a lot of distinguished elements, between the experienced players who have spent many years in the team and the young players who have imposed themselves in the group,” he said.

“The current mix will serve the team in the current period and will prepare the young players to gain more experience and grow up to become the pillars of this team in the coming years,” he added.

With the World Cup expanding to 48 teams in 2026, which has also led to qualification spots available to Asian teams increasing from 4+1 (four direct spots and one indirect spot through inter-continental playoffs) to 8+1, Al Hayam believes it serves as an added motivation for all teams.

“Increasing the number of qualifying spots for the World Cup will give all teams a bigger motivation in the current qualifiers, and everyone is currently working to qualify for the World Cup,” he said.

“For us, this is also our main goal at the current stage, which is the dream of Bahrain, which we have been seeking to achieve for many years. We also know that the path will not be easy for sure and needs more work, sacrifice, and effort to progress further in the qualifier race. We will give everything we can to get closer to this dream,” he asserted.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *