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Manama: The summer of 2004 was a special time for Bahraini football fans. Not only had they seen their national team travel to China for only their second appearance at the AFC Asian Cup, but they also watched in delight as a golden generation of talents memorably exceeded expectations.

Bahrain's historic performance came to a climax when they lost 4-3 after extra-time to eventual winners Japan in the semi-finals following an epic battle. It is now 13 years on since that day – August 3, 2004 – when striker Alaa Hubail inspired Al Ahmar (The Red) to the cusp of victory over the Samurai Blue, only for it to be snatched away at the death. 

That campaign in China, which still ranks as Bahrain's best-ever in the AFC Asian Cup, went on to kick-start a rise in the kingdom's footballing fortunes, seeing them go close to reaching the FIFA World Cup in both 2006 and 2010.

Late escapes

Bahrain's 2004 AFC Asian Cup began with the tournament opener against China at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium. A capacity crowd of 40,000 was stunned when Mohammed Hubail (pictured above) lobbed the ball over Chinese 'keeper Liu Yunfei to make it 1-0 to the West Asians at half-time.

China got back into the game after the restart as Zheng Zhi's cool penalty levelled the scores before Li Jinyu gave the hosts the lead. But striker Hussain Ali, affectionately known as 'Pele' in his homeland, hit back in the 89th minute to salvage a point.

A similar script ensued for the Bahrainis in their second Group A match against Gulf neighbours Qatar. After Wesam Rizik had put Qatar ahead with a penalty on the hour, Bahrain were staring at defeat going into additional time, before Mohammed Hubail scored with a looping header to grab another late equaliser.

The Alaa Hubail show

If it was Mohammed Hubail who made the headlines in the first two matches, his younger brother Alaa would go on to ensure his share of the limelight, starting from the final group stage encounter against Indonesia. 

Needing a win in order to qualify for the quarter-finals, Bahrain took the lead through Ali's (pictured above) second goal of the tournament, before the Alaa Hubail show began to gather momentum.

The 22-year old started a move in the middle of the park with a marauding run before setting up his brother on the right wing. Then, Alaa reached the box just in time to convert Mohammed's cross and make it 2-0 to Al Ahmar.

Indonesia threatened to complicate matters after Elie Aiboy scored in the 75th minute to set up a difficult finale, but Talal Yousef calmed Bahraini nerves with a stunning free-kick that ensured a 3-1 win and a spot in the quarter-finals. There would be more to come from Alaa Hubail.

Bringing down the Uzbeks

Uzbekistan came into the quarter-finals boasting a 100% record in Group C, where they knocked out three-time champions Saudi Arabia and finished as group winners with no goals conceded.

Bahrain showed no signs of apprehension, though, even after Alexander Geynrikh gave the Uzbeks the lead on the hour. Talisman Alaa Hubail (pictured above) responded with a quick-fire double to the turn the game on its head, using his predatory instincts to score twice in the space of five minutes.

But the West Asians were then given a dose of their own medicine when Vladimir Shishelov levelled in the 86th minute to ultimately force a nerve-racking penalty shootout.

With the scores tied at 2-2 after four penalties apiece, up stepped the man of the hour Alaa Hubail, who made no mistake from 12 yards. His effort proved decisive as Leonid Koshelev sent his kick wide to spark wild celebrations from the Bahrainis as they booked their place in the semi-finals.

The battle of Jinan

After what had been a tremendous two weeks in China, the Bahraini squad travelled to the eastern city of Jinan for a mouthwatering semi-final against defending champions Japan at Shandong Sports Centre.

In their only previous AFC Asian Cup appearance, in 1988, Bahrain had finished bottom of their group without a win, but this time round The Red had shown that they had the capability to punch above their weight.

Bahrain started confidently and scored on seven minutes through none other than Alaa Hubail, who followed up an excellent first touch with a low drive past Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi from 12 yards as the underdogs took a one-goal lead into the interval.

Drama ensues

Japan came back strongly, with Koji Nakata and Keiji Tamada scoring within the first 10 minutes of the second half. Bahrain, though, weren't out yet as Alaa Hubail (pictured below) made the difference once again, latching on to a through-ball and sliding it past Kawaguchi to make it 2-2 in the 71st minute. 

With five minutes remaining, Bahrain delivered what they thought was the knockout blow. Substitute Duaij Nasser, at 21 the youngest player in the squad, scored with a fierce low shot to make it 3-2, only for Yuji Nakazawa to level with a diving header in the 90th minute and break Bahraini hearts.

Extra-time beckoned for the second straight game but this time The Red would not see a happy ending. Three minutes in, Tamada scored his second to make it 4-3 as Japan held on to weather the Bahraini onslaught and secure a place in the final.

A golden generation

The defeat to Japan was followed by a 4-2 loss to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the third place play-off but Bahrain went home with their heads held high.

Their best-ever performance on the continent was fueled by what is looked back upon as a golden generation. On the tip of everyone's lips was five-goal Alaa Hubail, who finished as the tournament's joint top scorer alongside Iran’s Ali Karimi.

His sibling Mohammed Hubail also played a starring role, alongside Talal Yousef in midfield. Others such as Salman Issa and Hussain Ali went on to become household names in the region in the years to come. 

Photos: Lagardère Sports

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