I gotta admit it. When I saw Oman’s group at the Arab Gulf Cup, their likelihood of making it through Group A didn’t really warrant a snowball’s chance in the desert from me.
It’s been few weeks since Ahmed Mubarak and Co. lifted the Gulf Cup in Kuwait City, but Oman is unlikely to forget their heroes’ triumph in Kuwait in a hurry.
The Sultanate had been drawn against 10-time winners and hosts Kuwait, regional favourite Saudi Arabia – who, by the way, will be representing the hopes of all of the Gulf at this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia – and fellow heavyweights the United Arab Emirates.
Oman certainly did give those who’d bet against them plenty of food for thought after their opening game: Ali Mabkhout’s penalty meant the UAE had begun the tournament with a win, and had left Oman languishing outside the top two.
A week later, though, and things were quite different. That goal would be the UAE’s only strike in Group A, with Oman responding strongly via veteran skipper Ahmed Mubarak against Kuwait, and an expertly taken brace by Saad Suhail against the Saudis. Oman ended up on top of Group A, the UAE finished second, the Saudis would head home, and fortunately for the Kuwaitis, they were already there.
Oman had quite clearly done their homework. To err is, of course, human, but coach Pim Verbeek forgave any mistakes his boys had made because everyone on the team that has flown to Kuwait City had carried out a thorough recon of their opponents.
The Saudis were using the Gulf Cup as a staging ground to see which players were capable of joining the kingdom’s best in Russia this June. Juan Antonio Pizzi is former coach of Chile’s national football team and Spanish Primera Liga club Valencia CF, had a few tricks up his sleeve. Verbeek will have given him quite a few answers to questions he was hoping he would not have to ask.
When Oman’s team bus trundled into the stadium for their first game against the UAE, many wondered if lady luck had boarded the coach with them. If she hadn’t accompanied the red men to Kuwait, there was no way the tens of thousands of fans that were headed en masse to Kuwait were going to leave her behind.
As Oman’s Royal Air Force scrambled special aircraft to ferry the loyal, passionate masses of fans who knew that the squad in Kuwait were representing far more than the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a nation, alongside the Oman Football Association, the Ministry for Sports Affairs and national carriers Oman Air and SalamAir, and they would do all they could to give Oman the extra edge.
Lady luck, as it would seem, was also on the plane to Kuwait. Midway through the first half against Bahrain, it was one of their own, Mahdi Abdul Jabar who rose highest to head the ball into this own net. It is said, however, that champions make their own luck, and Oman’s goalkeeper, who’d displayed all the qualities of a champion so far, would face his final hurdle against the same team that had beaten him in that opening game.
Omar Abdulrahman, though, was not so lucky on the night. Goalkeeper Faiz Al Rushaidi has had to wait long and hard to come out of the long shadow cast by the legendary Ali Al Habsi, but his heroics in the final have ensured he will live long in the memory of the Sultanate’s footballing history. Abdulrahman’s 89th minute penalty, had it conspired to find its way past Rushaidi, would’ve certainly consigned Oman to another heartbreaking defeat, the kind they’d already experienced against the Emiratis in 2007, and in Qatar in 2005.
Rushaidi stood tall, though, and ensured there would be no repetition of what had transpired either in Abu Dhabi or in Doha on this occasion. Once, though, was too mild, too soft a test for Oman. As the match petered into extra time and the dreaded lottery of the penalty shootout loomed large, Rushaidi seemed to be unfazed by the steadily rising pressure in the cauldron of the Jaber Al Ahmad stadium.
It was a quality that would serve him well. Ali Mabkhout, Ahmed Barman, Ismail Ahmed and Ahmed Al Menhali had all converted for the UAE from the spot. Khalid Al Hajri, Saad Suhail, Ahmed Mubarak and Said Salim had all responded in kind for Oman.
Six players would step up for the Sultanate on the night during that shootout. It seemed to take an eternity for Abdulrahman to get his bearings right, both opponents exchanging brief glances as the man who’d already been thwarted by Al Rashidi attempted to find a way past him again. He couldn’t, Mohsin Al Khaldi scored for Oman, and the rest, as they say, is history.