On the ball: A bright future for youth football in Oman
August 22, 2017 | 7:50 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
Al Habsi Football School may be the newest entrant, but is one that is sure to grow rapidly.

“Kids have it so easy these days.” It’s an oft-repeated phrase but one that has much significance here. If you lived in Oman during the nineties and loved football, the beaches, or a patch of grass in a public park, were just about the only places you could go to hone your skills. Fortunately, the next generations of footballers now have not just the right space, but the right people to ensure their skills are honed the right way. Three privately-operated academies have been opened in Oman in the last five years, and in close cooperation with the Oman Football Association (OFA), will surely bode well for the nation, as grassroots football begins to bloom in the desert.

Operated until very recently as the Arsenal Soccer Schools Oman, with direct support from Arsenal Football Club in the UK, Oman’s first private soccer school has currently taken on a slightly different mantle, with Italian football giants Juventus now overseeing the coaching programmes imparted to young footballers in the Sultanate, as they hope to follow in the footsteps of such legends such as Italian World Cup Winners Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo, and French world champions Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet and Zinedine Zidane. With their new term beginning this September, senior coach Gerald Lami is looking forward to helping his new charges in Oman.

“There are a lot of things that go into making the career of a footballer, which people maybe don’t see,” revealed Lami. “All they see is the exterior and the physical aspect of it, not the mental aspect of it. At that time, it was all about who is the biggest and who is the strongest, and because I didn’t have that, I was more reliant on the technical side of the game and my mental strength as well.

“The first thing that I would look into is the ability to absorb information,” he explained. “If the player is able to take information and execute it, that’s the best player to work with, because if they are able to dribble, or shoot or have skill, but are not able to take in information, those things count for nothing, as you need to be coachable as a player.”

While Lami may be spearheading a new avatar of an existing academy, the Muscat Football Academy (MFA) is an initiative that’s been instituted from the ground up. This standalone football development centre is the brainchild of former Leicester City and Morocco goalie Chuck Martini and Sheikh Al Jarwani, one of Oman’s leading business magnates. Since its inception about four years ago, Martini – who represented his nation on four occasions and travelled as part of the Morocco squad to the 1994 Fifa World Cup – has always developed local talent, but had an international perspective.

Over the last two years, MFA have been regulars at the Mundialto Tournament, which features some of the world’s best youth prospects, featuring clubs such as Valencia, Ajax, Barcelona, FC Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Club America from Mexico, and many others.

Martini has also taken his players to the neighbouring UAE to take part in many other youth tournaments, and this is central to a plan which involves bringing the best out of players.“One of our goalkeepers, Mees Eppink, is now pursuing his dream at Ajax in the Netherlands, and Tariq A’Saadi, who left two seasons ago, is actually about to sign for Manchester City,” said Martini. “We’ve had two of our major stars go and play abroad: They may be only 10 or 11 years old, but clubs are now taking on children as young as that.

“We also have Alejandro Espinosa, who is now playing collegiate football and studying in the United States via a scholarship with us,” he added. “I do believe we can offer a path to parents whose children are serious about football. It’s not just about spending money to join an academy, but they can eventually use this as a means to education, or if they show enough promise, become professionals.” Speaking of goalkeepers, Oman’s very own favourite footballer also has hopes to help young footballers in the nation follow in his footsteps. Al Habsi Football School may be the newest entrant, but is one that is sure to grow rapidly, given Ali Al Habsi’s fame across the region.

“We believe there is everything here in Oman for players to succeed,” said Ahmed Al Habsi, the operations manager for the school and a former member of the board of directors of the Oman Football Association. “What we want to do as part of our long-term plans is to set up an academy here in Oman, where we can fully benefit from Ali Al Habsi’s experience in England. He has about 15 or 16 years of experience and I think the youth of Oman will benefit greatly from his expertise.

“Of course, for that we need a lot of land and help from the Oman Football Association and other organisations but I am sure we will get that in the future,” he added.

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