With their sights set firmly on the future, the Oman national football team’s upset at the 24th Gulf Cup hasn’t dampened their hopes for a 2022 FIFA World Cup entry. Here’s how they hope to get there…
With a history that spans five decades, football is indelibly woven into the tapestry of the Sultanate’s sporting landscape. To have risen from a loss to Libya by 15 goals in their first international game, to lifting the Gulf Cup twice by 2018, it’s evident that Oman has come a long way in developing their game – becoming a formidable force in the GCC and warranting respect from its neighbours.
But football is beyond simply a sport in the nation; love for the game is embedded in its blood. Whether it’s a child learning how to kick a ball for the first time, or an adult cheering for his or her favourite team, the passion for ‘the beautiful game’ is evident.
It arises from the memories embedded in the Sultanate’s collective experience with the sport. The ones of Oman’s former captain Ali Al Habsi and the former Chairman of the Oman Football Association (OFA) Sayyid Khalid Al Busaidi lifting the Gulf Cup trophy in 2009 for the first time as they rewrote the nation’s sport-history books.
Smiles galore and cheers from the far ends of Oman pouring in, this created a stage for the team to build on – a stage that pushes the nation forward even today.
Whether that alone was enough to make Oman favourites in the coming years was unknown, but there’s no forgetting the cries of pride and joy that ensued at the 2018 Gulf Cup as Mohsin Johar al-Khaldi found the back of the nets on a make-or-break overtime penalty kick, one which ultimately helped the Sultanate lift the trophy yet again.
This largely cemented Oman as the favourites at this year’s Gulf Cup tournament. However, the team couldn’t progress beyond the group stages, having lost to a resilient Saudi Arabia – and shattering the hopes of the millions of fans here in Oman as well as those who headed to Qatar to support them.
But all is not lost, says Sayyid Khalid Al Busaidi – Chairman of the Oman Olympic Committee (OOC) and SABCO Group – in a one-on-one interview with Y earlier this week.
“It’s pretty natural to witness ups and downs in football when it comes to national team performance,” he says. “We’ve won the Gulf Cup twice – once was in 2009 and once two years ago. This time the team couldn’t qualify for the second round of the tournament, so we wish them all the best for the next attempt which will hopefully be in Iraq.
He added: “Despite the failure of the national team to win the Gulf Cup this time, I see huge prospects for football in Oman. I believe there’s a large base of strong, young players who play for the country throughout the various governorates and wilayats in Oman.”
He’s right – the Oman national football team has come lengths in stride since its official formation in 1978. Currently ranked 81st worldwide by FIFA, the current team is a talent pool of players who’ve pioneered the game since their younger years.
In retrospect, Oman was placed 174th in the table in 1984.
From the captain, Ahmed Mubarak Al Mahaijri, 34, to the goalkeeper Faiz Al-Rushaidi, 31, the current team is now deemed an aggressive side reminiscent to the winning team from 2009.
This further instills confidence that the national team can qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.
While the qualifying rounds are currently ongoing – with three more matches to be played against Afghanistan, Qatar, and Bangladesh – the team’s performance in Round 2 of the qualifiers have raised hopes of a maiden FIFA World Cup qualification. Though, the road to qualifying isn’t going to be easy.
Speaking about the topic, Sayyid Khalid says: “I think we have a long way to go to prepare ourselves better and ultimately perform better if we want to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. One of the key things we need to do quickly is implement the club licensing system, whereby we need to enhance the level of football management and football governance in the current league. This will give our clubs a better position in competitions and, hopefully, give them a better chance to play against strong teams in Asia.
“Parallel to that OFA’s plans must include high-level competition matches, friendly games and competitions, and championships to prepare our players for high-level performance. Because, to be honest, our national team wasn’t critically challenged in the last two years.
“The only two times we played against strong teams were against Qatar – which we lost in Doha in the Asian Qualifiers – and Saudi Arabia – which we played in the Gulf Cup and lost too.
“Otherwise, really, we are lacking that experience to challenge strong teams. If we have to qualify for the World Cup, first of all, we have to win the current stage of qualification, before moving to the second level where we will face the big guys – Japan, Australia, South Korea, and so on.
“So, from my experience, if we want to achieve a positive outcome from the 2022 qualifiers, we really have to do a lot to prepare the boys for the challenge.”
Along with their senior players Oman is now also banking on its youth to make a mark on the country’s football scene – bringing in a wealth of talent from local clubs throughout different wilayats across the country.
The HM’s Cup – Oman’s premier knockout tournament – is among a list of professional competitions that are now helping players expand beyond their communities into the national arena alongside Oman national team players.
This coincides with their strategy to include youth players on the team. At 34, Ahmed Mubarak is the most experienced team player, while goalkeeper Ammar al Rushaidi (21), midfielder Moataz Saleh (23), and forward Muhsen al Ghassani (22) are some of the newer players in the mix.
“We have already seen the fruits of youth football during my time at the Oman Football Association,” says Sayyid Khalid. “There’ve been a number of players performing extremely well on the national team today. This gives a positive indication that we do have a new generation coming up that could Insha’Allah fulfill our objectives and hopefully reach the Olympics in France in 2024 and also qualify for the World Cup in 2022.
“There is huge potential in Oman for youth development and grassroots development. Oman has a young population – statistically – and football is largely played and loved in the country in addition to many other sports as well.
“The SABCO Sports initiative started to capture opportunities in Oman and we are trying to link sports to tourism and promoting the country regionally and globally. By introducing new initiatives such as the International Youth Cup tournament and other projects with the Ministry of Education and other partners, I think we’ve laid a good foundation whereby we attract good sponsors to promote youth development. We engaged some new football academies to work with us, developing opportunities for kids, and we’re attracting foreign academies to come to Oman and interact with the youth. Our kids are getting better exposure and experience to play against stronger teams.
“All these elements will play a positive role in feeding the club structure and national team structure as well, going forward.
“I hope we see more private sector engagement in sports development and sponsorship in Oman,” elaborates Sayyid Khalid. “There’s huge value behind sports in Oman, I believe. Sports can become a good platform for companies to present their CSR programs and create loyalty programs for the youth. So, the SABCO Sports project is one among many other projects that I have in mind for promoting sports in this country.”
Football academies are one way to reach out to youth – and they’re slowly but efficiently shaping the way football grows in the country.
As Sayyid Khalid rightly points out, SABCO Sports, organisers of Tough Mudder and National Obstacle Series (NOS), also has a direct hand in complementing the Ministry of Sport’s and OFA’s efforts in building football in Oman.
With two premier events – the Oman International Youth Cup and Academy League – the private institution aims to give youth an opportunity to vie for top spot internationally against other youth teams from Italy, Spain, the UK, and the like.
In an earlier interview with Y, Nic Cartwright, the Managing Director of the company reveals: “SABCO Sports is making huge leaps when it comes to harbouring a wave of young sportsmen and women in the country.
“Coming up with events of such nature – those that help get the people involved – is very important for the Sultanate.
“Not only does that give more opportunities to the people here for more fun events, but it also improves the standing of the country, as it marks it as a sports destination. There’s still a long way to go but we’re slowly making progress,” he adds.
This is also echoed by Meeran Yusuf, the founder and Head Coach of Alpha Football Academy Oman – a training school with over 300 students. Speaking to Y, he reveals: “It’s important to start training the kids young. All the Messis and Ronaldos of the world didn’t break into the scene overnight. It was decades – if not more – of persistence, training and hard work that made
“It’s amazing to see that children as young as this are ready to put in the time and effort to be the best in their game. Even eight-year-olds of today are far better than I ever was at that age.”
“A part of growing football in Oman however, is to make quality coaching accessible to all kids. We have kids here between the ages of five and 18 – and we’re giving them the best opportunities to showcase their skills.
“These kids then go on to matches outside the Sultanate and represent [Oman] to make us all proud.”
Meeran and his team are currently in talks to bring coaches from Venizia FC, a Venice-based Serie B team from the Italian football league system. His intentions are simple: to bring qualified coaches to teach the youth how to impart their skills on the pitch and instill confidence in them from a young age.
Devising a strategy to develop youth is one way to transform the game – and sports in Oman – but the road to a newer and better tomorrow is going to be a long one. Yet it’s one worth the effort, believes the Chairman of the OOC.
With this in mind, Sayyid Khalid proudly announces to Y that he’s going to organise and host a nationwide workshop in February, whereby he will invite all sports stakeholders under one roof to discuss the nature and opportunities of sports development in the Sultanate.
And, as Sayyid Khalid promises to elevate Oman’s Olympic team to greater heights, he also intends to apply his experience with the national football team to his current role – though, he’s optimistic about taking it one step further by tackling challenges head-on.
“Taking my experience to the Olympic level is an interesting one, because football is, by far, a more complex sport than many others,” he says. “However, there are certain fundamentals and ground elements that could work in any game. If the principles and foundations are correct, I really feel that we can achieve strong results on an international level in other sports.
“But it will take a good level of preparation. What I’m trying to do is work with stakeholders in the country and align ourselves on certain key objectives, identify our key strengths and weaknesses and, try to design a road map that could lead us to a successful result in France 2024 and the Los Angeles Olympics 2028.
“If we want to achieve our Olympic objectives, we have to think long-term. Short-term objectives will not get us anywhere.
“We’re all trying our best. Now, we need the support and encouragement of all our stakeholders; whether it’s government bodies, federations, sponsors, youth, or schools.
“We all need to work with the same objective: to win.
“To win championships and trophies is a long process – and is a lot of hard work. But the fruits of the rewards mean you elevate sports in the country and make your nation proud – and that’s what we’re all trying to achieve.”