With the Gulf Cup in hand, it’s time to celebrate, but with keeping an eye on Asia and the world. Alvin Thomas shares the happiness and hopes of the fans.
Anxiety and excitement runs high at the Jaber International Stadium in Kuwait. It’s the deciding penalty kick that can ensure Oman our second Gulf Cup title. You can cut the tension with a knife.
Oman have the upper hand, though: An error in judgment by UAE player Omar Abdulrahman handed the advantage to the Sultanate as Fayez al Rushaidi intercepted the shot to deal a crushing blow to UAE’s hopes. This was the UAE player’s second penalty miss of the day. He had missed a scoring opportunity in the 89th minute of the match following a rough decision against the Omani team by the referee.
With determination and diligence, midfielder Mohsin Johar al Khaldi places the ball on the ground. He then retreats, runs towards the ball… stops… and finally takes the shot. The ball beats the UAE goalkeeper and bullets into the far-right corner of the net.
Oman have successfully clinched its second Gulf Cup title – and the crowd goes wild.
The emotions are shared by tens of thousands of fans who were glued to their television sets to watch the match. The excitement is at an all-time high as fans scurry onto the roads and group to join the celebrations.
This, after all, is the first-time Oman have lifted the trophy after nine years of waiting.
It doesn’t take long before the roads clog up with fans driving around in their decorated cars and SUVs. Sitting on the window sills, the roof and also the bonnet of their cars, people chant praises to the Omani team led by Ahmed Mubarak ‘Kanu’.
Amid all the praise and glory, one group of friends come to us and chimes: “We couldn’t have done it without Fayez al Rushaidi. He saved our team in the second half, and continued his efforts until the last whistle. He was also instrumental in our win against Bahrain in the semifinal. He is the diving hero who answered all our wishes.”
Imran Ali al Balushi, a government employee, goes on to call Fayez “Superman”; it’s a name that has since caught on.
“Not only did Fayez prove himself to all of us in the Sultanate, but he also won over the hearts of all the people watching the game. Oman went into the tournament as the underdogs, but we kept our cool and finished victorious. This is the ultimate proof that we can achieve so much when we stand together as a team and work to attain the improbable,” al Balushi says.
He adds: “Since the start, he had been the man that kept the rest of the team functioning like a well-oiled machine.
“It’s great that he was there at our beckon to see us through to the final whistle.”
The man with the ‘Golden Gloves’ had been benched for nine years before being given the opportunity to play hero. And his story has been nothing short of a remarkable one.
“As you know, I was always a substitute goalkeeper for Oman,” says Fayez al Rushaidi, in an interview with Y.
“But I learned so much under the guidance of Captain Ali al Habsi during that time.
“This period also made me stronger as I was able to work harder to become the player that I am now.”
He then opens up about the two crucial saves that aided Oman in lifting the trophy. “I think it was the prayers of my family and all the people supporting us that helped me stop those penalties. But, at the same time, I could guess the direction and lift of the ball in Omar Abdulrahman’s shots.”
The pride of Oman – the whole team led by manager Pim Verbeek – was flown back to the country on a Royal Air Force of Oman plane. They were given a fitting arrival at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Baushar, wherein a welcome and victory celebration was hosted.
There they were welcomed by Sayyid Khalid bin Hilal Al Busaidi, Minister of Diwan of Royal Court, and scores of fans and followers. The team with the Gulf Cup was paraded inside the stadium in horse-drawn carriages as onlookers cheered in glory.
Since then, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has also conferred the Oman Civil Order third class on Sheikh Salim al Wahaibi, the chairman of the Oman Football Association (OFA), and First Class Order on Pim Veerbek. The orders were handed over by Sayyid Khalid.
But that’s not all: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said announced that all members – Oman’s Gulf Cup winning football team’s players, managerial and support staff – would receive residential land.
Following the win, fans are now coming together to motivate the team for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification.
“It’s time we aimed bigger than the Gulf Cup,” says Zeeshan Sultan al Zadjali, an ardent follower of the Oman football team and an aspiring football player.
“Football is in our blood and I think it is important that we focus on not just the Gulf Cup but other tournaments as well. For example, after our famed win in 2009, we came back and didn’t even qualify for the AFC Asian Cup.
“Of course, this time around, we did qualify for it and have done rather well. But I think it’s time we looked beyond the local tournaments and focused on the bigger picture,” he adds.
This is also echoed by Fahad al Tamimi, an expert in football analysis and the sub-editor of sports magazine Koooora Wa Bas. He remarks: “I think that more attention must be given to football from all angles. Yes, we do take the Gulf Cup very seriously, and that probably is one of the many reasons we now have the trophy with us here in Oman, but it’s also a signal that we must focus on all the other tournaments that we take part in.
“For example, this week, our Under-23 team is taking part in the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship, which is hosted by China. But I feel that not much attention has been given to it.
“These players are the future of Oman. The question everyone is asking is whether Oman has the capability of making it past the qualifying stages.
“It will be these players who will most likely be representing the team there.”
For the Gulf Cup, offers were open to residents who were interested in catching the action live. For example, SABCO Group offered 100 free airline tickets to fans who wished to encourage and support the national team.
Oman Air responded to the enthusiasm of fans by offering ten free tickets, besides discounted tickets to people to attend the Gulf Cup final. They also offered a special price of RO16 for tickets to Kuwait for the final game and RO167 per person for soccer packages.
The Sultanate’s low-cost airline SalamAir operated eight flights – six from Muscat, one from Sohar, and one from Salalah – to help the fans. All of this translated to record sales for both airlines. The flights to Kuwait were full and seats were sold out in less than 24 hours of opening bookings.
Post win, companies have been showering the team with several incentives. Omantel offered the team RO100,000 and the Oman Tourism Development Company (Omran) RO50,000.
A big demand was also seen for patriotic products during the national team’s participation in the Gulf Cup. The demand gradually increased as the team progressed over the stages and peaked as Oman reached the final.
Prestige Oman – a brand that designs scarves – said Omani players wore their products during the national anthem.
The company’s founder Ahmed Abdullah al Dahmani said they had provided free scarves, flags and banners to passengers of SalamAir’s flights to Kuwait.
“It’s a national event and we have to stand together to support the team,” he says.
“Such occasions serve as a good opportunity to market our products inside and outside the Sultanate. Especially the big banner we designed for His Majesty which was displayed at the stadium in Kuwait,” he adds.
The Omani SME provided 130 different products with exclusive and creative designs.
But all of this begs us to question: Is this enough to entice a generation of youngsters into playing football in Oman? And are companies and public entities starting to take steps to help improve this ever-growing industry?
Meeran Yoosuf, the founder of Alpha Football Academy of Oman, seems to think so.
“The scope for football in Oman is endless. It’s an industry that we are only starting to capitalise on now,” he says, before pointing out that his coaching academy already has more than 150 students.
“Oman is a huge country and the game is embedded in their veins. The talents here are amazing, so giving them attention and the right training is necessary. But there is certainly a dearth of tournaments hosted within Oman.
“To alleviate this issue, we are trying our best to keep bringing international powerhouses to Oman, and expose our kids to them. This way, their game and thought-process will improve to a much higher standard,” the US-certified football trainer says.
Taking in young candidates is vital to the development of football in Oman, though. For instance, children are known to start football training at the age of two in countries like Brazil and Argentina.
To inculcate such behaviour here, Meeran and his team of experienced coaches are now working hard to incorporate their ‘grassroots’ initiative. When established, it will aim to rake in kids as young as five to play and train in football.
“The key to the future of the country’s football industry is the youth,” the coach exclaims.
But Meeran then points out an important fact: “We can train all the kids in Oman, but the need for a space to continue with the sport after they’re done with training is required.
Fahad al Tamimi goes on to explain that Meeran’s worry is of real concern.
“We need to see an increase in government expenditure on the football industry in Oman. The need for professional tournaments is vital to the growth of our national team,” Fahad tells.
“The funding of these clubs is really sparse and this causes an exodus of players from one location to another. You can see up to 10 players moving from one club to another; it’s not a joke. We cannot even call it a transfer.
“If this happens, how can we see a growth in the players?” he asks.
“The major tournaments in the country are all organised by the OFA, which funds the clubs. The sponsors are another leading source of money, but without television rights and apt sponsors, the tournaments are organised on a tight budget,” he tells.
Nevertheless, some companies are still keeping a positive approach to the football scene in the Sultanate. The commencement of SABCO Sports – Oman’s premier sports agency – is a turning point in the sports sector in Oman.
It brings several brands under one umbrella and, above all, provides event and stadium solutions, marketing/sponsorship and consultancy, and even opportunities for brands to align with the right stars.
This provides the player with the right exposure, while the client also gets the best benefit out of their resources.
“While this is just a start, it’s a step in the right direction,” says Muneer al Balushi, a football aficionado. “I feel this will help bring the right people into the limelight and that should have more international eyes on Oman.
“And who knows, if that happens, we could be looking at our stars entering the big leagues in England or even La Liga, if we don’t already have a league of stature on our own,” he adds.