Oman travel to the 2019 Asian Cup armed with hope
January 9, 2019 | 7:18 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
Having tasted success on the Gulf stage, Oman will now be aiming to replicate its success, once again, on a far bigger platform.

It’s a simple thing, isn’t it? Just a ball and a goal. But every few years, that simple thing drastically changes the world. It closes schools, shops, cities, and even stops wars. It gives people everywhere something to hope for. It gives countries respect, where respect is in short supply, and achieves more than politicians ever could. Once every so often, a ball achieves the impossible.

When Oman won the Gulf Cup of Nations last year, it’s fair to say that the country came to a standstill. Irrespective of whether they had come to the country from overseas, or were born here, people were so caught up in the frenzy of Oman’s touch-and-go win over the United Arab Emirates in Kuwait, that they just didn’t want to go to work.

Having tasted success on the Gulf stage, Oman will now be aiming to replicate its success, once again, on a far bigger platform.

The Sultanate of Oman’s national football team will be taking part in the 2019 Asian Cup, which started on January 5 in the United Arab Emirates.

Although Omanis are given a warm reception wherever they travel, national team manager Pim Verbeek and his side got a far hotter reception when they began their campaign on January 9, with good reason: Oman’s opponents in that Gulf Cup final were the UAE, and indeed, things could have been so different.

Having beaten Oman in both teams’ opening match of the Gulf Cup, fate would pit the two neighbours against each other in the final. With the game poised to go into extra time, it was goalie Faiz Al Rushaidi who made a name for himself and ensured the Omanis stayed in the game, as he spectacularly saved midfielder Omar Abdulrahman’s penalty.

That save was made in the 91st minute of regulation time, and Alberto Zaccheroni’s men were made to rue that miss, as Oman continued to hold its neighbours at bay, before Al Rushaidi cemented his place as a hero by once again saving a goal from Abdulrahman in the ensuing penalty shootout, in which Oman triumphed 6-5.

It is that winning feeling that Oman will hope takes them through a tough group stage, which began on January 9, when Oman played Uzbekistan, shortly after Asian powerhouse Japan met Turkmenistan.

In hindsight, Al Rushaidi’s heroics at the Gulf Cup offered the Oman national team solutions in more ways than one: Oman’s legendary goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was not part of the squad that made it to Kuwait, and an injury means he will cruelly miss out on representing his country in the Emirates. A thigh injury suffered while playing for his club – Saudi Arabian outfit Al Hilal – has ruled him out of the tournament. But Saeed Al Bulushi, the General Secretary of the Oman Football Association, says the prevailing mood among the players is positive.

“All the players are in good health, except that, unfortunately, we have lost the services of our captain Ali Al Habsi,” he said, speaking exclusively to T-weekly. “He was injured on duty for Al Hilal, but otherwise, everything is okay, and hopefully, our players will be in a good state to play. They have our full support, and many Omani supporters are going to support them at the tournament. We are working hard to achieve this target.”

“We will do our best in this tournament, and utilise the benefits of winning the Gulf Cup. What happened with Al Habsi happened, but we have good players. Of course, the weather in the UAE is very similar to that of Oman, so yes, this will benefit the national team as well. We are now seeing daily calls from supporters who want to travel by road to go there. A lot of companies have collaborated with the national team, such as Oman Air, National Bank of Oman, Bank Sohar and Omantel. A lot of clubs are also going to take their supporters to the UAE, so this will also boost the team there.”

A team is of course more than the sum of its parts. There is, after all, no “I” in the word “team”. Yes, there is the word “me”, but that word has been scrambled to form the word “team”. Where am I going with this rather odd-sounding monologue, you might ask? What I am saying is that Al Habsi or no Al Habsi, the team always comes first, and that is the attitude that Verbeek is drilling into his players.

A goalkeeper himself, former Leicester City and AFC Wimbledon player Chuck Martini agrees with Verbeek’s ideology, having collaborated with the Dutchman on many occasions since he arrived in Oman to take charge of the national team.

Currently, the head coach and director of the Muscat Football Academy, Martini feels the team does have its work cut out, but believes the team will do well if the players stick together and play for each other.

“Being an ex-goalkeeper myself, I think it is one of the most important positions to fill,” he said. “Having managed football clubs as well, this is the first thing that comes to my mind when it comes to allotting positions, because the number one jersey always belongs to the goalkeeper. Any nation, any team, will always look for a reliable player in between the sticks, and when I was a player, I always did my best to help the team and the coaching staff. As a manager, it was evident that this was a position that needed to be filled with reliability.”

“It is an important position that will be on Pim’s mind, but I think he has two very good goalkeepers in Ali Al Habsi and Faiz Al Rushaidi, and that will lessen the burden,” added Martini. “But if anything happens to Faiz, I don’t know if the number three goalkeeper will be able to handle a tournament of this magnitude. Let us hope that he stays fit, because he proved his worth with his heroics at the Gulf Cup.”

Oman faced Uzbekistan on January 9 at the Sharjah Stadium, before travelling to the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi four days later to play Asian giants Japan. They then stay in the capital to take on Turkmenistan on the 17th, in what could be a make-or-break game for the only Arab side in Group F.

That game against the Turkmens could well be the decider for Oman in Group F, given the quality the Japanese have at their disposal. Some of Asia’s most famous names, including midfielder Genki Haraguchi, who plays for Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga, the country’s top domestic league, as well as young winger Ritsu Doan, who represents Dutch top-flight side FC Groningen, will be travelling to the UAE, as will forwards Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen) and Yoshinori Muto (Newcastle United).

Surprisingly, coach Hajime Moriyasu has overlooked a number of senior players, such as defenders Gen Shoji (FC Toulouse) and Gotoku Sakai (Hamburger SV), as well as experienced goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima (RC Strasbourg), midfielders Takashi Inui (Real Betis) and Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) and strikers Takuma Asano (Hannover 96) and Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), as he looks to prepare the next generation of Japanese players, and Martini feels this could play into Oman’s hands.

Ahead of the Asian Cup, Oman played India, Australia and Thailand in a series of warm-up games to prepare themselves for the tournament. The reds suffered a 5-0 defeat at the hands of the Aussies, but Verbeek says the team will use the lessons learned from that game in the Asian Cup.

“The loss is attributed to individual mistakes, and the Australians were better,” said Verbeek. “We did not expect the performance seen in the first half. Individual misplays in defence led to us taking three goals and affected our overall performance during the first half. Australia’s team was better and performed well in the tactical and physical elements. This game will not affect us. It unveiled many negative points and will act as a lesson for us to use before going into the Asian Cup.”

It does not help either that the Japanese have been crowned champions of Asia on four separate occasions – 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011 – and have made it to the tournament eight times. The Turkmen, however, have only been to the tournament twice, while the Uzbeks, who have been to the tournament seven times, finished fourth in 2011. Oman, meanwhile, have appeared in four of the previous tournaments.

Gerald Lami, senior coach at Juventus Academy Oman, believes that with the right team spirit and attitude, anything is possible on the pitch, as long as work was first done off it.

“Anything is possible in football with the right team spirit, and with cohesion and confidence, they have a good chance to win the tournament, but my favourites for the tournament would be Iran, considering they and the Japanese had a good World Cup,” he said. “Japan and South Korea are also favourites, because let’s not forget that they have players such as Son Heung-Min, who are really important to them. The Iranians also have players such as Alireza Jahanbaksh, so he can make a difference as well.”

He added, “Football is a sport that brings everyone together. Look at America, for example, where it is not their primary sport but it is growing.”

January may be the time when the world’s leading football leagues do resume after their respective winter breaks, but all of us here at T-weekly are going to ask you to hold off wearing your club jerseys for just a while longer. Oman’s national team are taking to the field, and as most of us know, there is no greater honour in football than to play for your country.

So, whether you support Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United or Munich, Arsenal or AC Milan, please keep your jerseys in the cupboard for a few more weeks. Instead of sporting the logos of Juventus’ zebra or Real Madrid’s hallowed crown, carry with pride the khanjar, which proudly stands on top of the red, white and green. Carry the symbol of the Sultanate of Oman.

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Oman’s team at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup

# Name Club # Name Club

1 Ammar Al Rushaidi (GK) Al Suwaiq 13 Khalid Al Braiki Al Nasr

2 Mohammed Al Musalami Dhofar 14 Ali Al Jabri Al Nahda

3 Mohammed Faraj Al Wakrah 15 Jameel Al Yahmadi Al Wakrah

4 Mohammed Khasib Al Nahda 16 Muhsen Al Ghassani Al Suwaiq

5 Mohammed Al Shiba Al Nahda 17 Ali Al Busaidi Dhofar

6 Raeed Ibrahim Saleh FC Valletta 18 Faiz Al Rushaidi (GK) Al Ain

7 Khalid Al Hajri Al Nasr 19 Mahmood Al Mushaifiri Al Nasr

8 Yaseen Al Shehadi Al Suwaiq 20 Salaah Al Yahyaei Dhofar

9 Mohammed Al Ghassani Saham 21 Mataz Saleh Dhofar

10 Mohsin Al Khaldi Sohar 22 Ahmed Al Rawahi (GK) Al Nasr

11 Saad Al Mukhaini Al Nassr 23 Harib Al Saadi Al Nasr

12 Ahmed Kano Mubarak (c) Al Mesaimeer Coach Pim Verbeek

Oman’s fixtures at the 2019 Asian Cup

13 January 2019 Oman vs Japan Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi

17 January 2019 Oman vs Turkmenistan Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi

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