Bahrain soccer players are hopeful that success at the 2014 World Cup qualifier can heal the divided nation after months of bloody political unrest.
As the team trains this week in Dubai, the fallout from Shiite-led protests calling for greater rights from Sunni rulers is hard to ignore. Several Shiite players who took part in the protests and detained haven't been included in the national squad.
Bahrain coach Peter Taylor said the protests and violent government crackdown have not impeded preparations for the opening match on Sept. 2 against Qatar. Although several players are banned from playing for their local clubs, Taylor said he hasn't ruled out eventually including them on the national team.
"As far as I'm concerned, if they start playing football and they show me their football fitness and they are good enough to be in the squad, they will be included," Taylor, an Englishman, said Thursday after a training session. "They were banned by their clubs. They weren't banned by their federations."
Those banned include brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, Abbas Ayaad, Mahmoud Al Oujami and Sayed Mohamed Adnan.
The action against the soccer players was part of a widespread government crackdown on dissent that resulted in the detention of journalists, bloggers, doctors, lawyers and activists. More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees have been suspended since April for their alleged involvement in the protests.
When asked if he worried his decision on players could be overridden by the Bahrain Football Association, Taylor said "we have not gotten to that stage. I have to see them play first."
The Bahrain association has not commented on the status of the players, although it told FIFA in July that it "had not suspended or sanctioned any athlete."
Ibrahim Mishkhas, a Sunni defender who has played for the national team for 15 years, said he would welcome players who took part in the protests.
"They deserve a second chance," Mishkhas said. "Everyone make mistakes. It's not my decision but I would like to have them back. They are great players and they have been with the team and did very well for the country. Hopefully, they will be forgiven and they will be with us during a very important time."
Mishkhas said there were "issues" early on between the mix of Sunni and Shia players on the team. But they have put aside their differences to concentrate on reaching the World Cup.
"Hopefully, we will work hard for Bahrain," Mishkhas said. "It is part of healing, and hopefully, we can try to heal the country with the way Sunni and Shia play together. Hopefully, we will make a good result for country and everyone will understand there is no difference between Sunni and Shia."
It's unlikely any of the players could return for the opening match against Qatar or a match on Sept. 6 against Indonesia. They have been released from jail, but charges against them for taking part in the protests have not been dropped.
Brothers Mohammed and Alaa Hubail were credited with helping Bahrain reach the Asian Cup semifinals in 2004. But Mohammed was sentenced in June to two years in jail for taking part in the protests, while Alaa and the other absent players likely will be put on trial in September after Ramadan when the civilian courts resume hearing cases against protesters.
Bahrain, a tiny country of just 525,000, was ranked as high as 49th in the FIFA world rankings in 2004. The team barely missed out on qualification for the last two World Cups. It finished qualifying for the 2010 World Cup as the fifth-placed team in Asia, but lost to New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff.