With my first forays into Bahraini football finding nought but low attendances, single-stand grounds and a distinct lack of visible fan culture, I was looking forward to visiting Muharraq, Bahrain’s footballing powerhouse and by far their most supported club.
Muharraq as an area is always worth a visit in itself. An island off the northeast coast of the country (now connected with bridges), full of narrow streets and ornate doorways (and an absolute maze sometimes), it’s known for its traditional arts, culture and buildings, as well as being somewhat of a religious hub.
Tonight’s game is an AFC Cup match, analogous to the Europa League in that it’s the second level continental club tournament. Both Muharraq and today’s visitors from Lebanon, Al Ahed have won the cup before; Muharraq in 2008, and Al Ahed just a few years ago in 2019.
As soon as I approach the stadium, I can see why this is known as Bahrain’s football heart. The streets are packed with supporters in bright red Muharraq shirts (the first time I’ve seen fans in local team replica kits) and traffic is backed up round the block. Luckily, I set off early and manage to find a spot in the car park before walking towards the stadium.
Built in 1928 but refurbished since then, the Muharraq Stadium is a step-up from the other grounds I’ve been to. Although part of the main stand is roped off, fans surround all sides of the stadium and the atmosphere is raucous. Drummers pound out snaking rhythms with chants and counter-chants which will continue for the full 90 minutes, barring a short break as the call to prayer echoes from the local mosque late in the first half. This is the kind of atmosphere I’d missed so far since leaving Budapest.
Football-wise, Muharraq also impress. They’re assured and compact, not afraid to play out of danger and adept at one-touch passing. They dominate the early going, but miss chance after chance in a frustrating first half.
We have to wait until the 67th minute for the floodgates open, and the assured young Nigerian playmaker Jona Moses is the one who parts the Al Ahed defence, latching onto a through pass and managing to poke the ball past the onrushing keeper. It just squirms over the line as two Ahed defenders jog back with a strange lack of urgency.
Muharraq make us wait for the second, but in the 85th minute a deft reverse pass by Ali Almalood sets Al Sherooqi free to control and pass the ball into the net. A third in the 92nd minute by Al Hayki (who finishes at his second bite of the cherry) puts a little extra gloss on a great performance.
Muharraq 3 – 0 Al Ahed
Muharraq now move on to the West Asian Zonal Final against either a Kuwaiti or Jordanian side. If they win that, an AFC Cup final awaits.
Al Muharraq Stadium
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes