The outpouring of national pride and emotion must have been evident around the Sultanate as the fifth Omani penalty taker, Mohsin al Khaldi, slotted home the winning goal, the winning penalty, at the end of a dramatic final to the Arabian Gulf Cup on Friday night.
We were at the Mouriya Al Sifah Resort, and the wide interest in the match was evident as we saw groups, no, large groups of people gathered around screens large and small, to watch the match, from the Sifawy Boutique Hotel, to the Sky Lounge, and the Bank Beach Resort.
The initial nervousness gave way to more confident urgings as the match wore on, with all of the drama reaching its crescendo in the 90th minute when Omani goalkeeper Fayez al Rushaidi managed to pummel away the penalty attempt of tousle haired Emirati Omar Abdulrahman.
Then, after 106 minutes, during extra time, the Emirati goalie, Khalid Essa was forced into a dramatic save when Al Khaldi struck a free kick from just outside the penalty area to the top-right corner of the goal with unerring accuracy. Essa came from nowhere to tip the ball around the corner with a save that must have broken hearts all over Oman.
Fahmi Rajab Durbein then saved the team, and the nation, with a perfectly timed sliding tackle on an Emirati striker who appeared to have broken free, and suddenly, the game was anyone’s to win. Then, in no time at all, a long blast of the whistle by the referee heralded penalties to decide the winners of the 23rd Gulf Cup.
The penalties were nail-biters, but neither goalkeeper actually looked like saving one, until Abdulrahman stepped up. He was a player English Premier League clubs had shown interest in, and had been the Emirates’ best player of the tournament.
Surely, he had in mind the earlier kick the yellow clad keeper had saved and it must have prayed on his mind when he chose to strike towards the other side of the keeper. In any case, Al Rushaidi guessed correctly, and incredibly, for the second time in the match saved the star’s penalty, leaving a confident Al Khaldi to convert the winning, fifth, penalty with aplomb.
I was watching with no English commentary, no subtitles, and I’m only a resident of Oman, not an Omani, yet I think in that moment, I took as much satisfaction as any local from winning, against the odds. The cacophony of noise and celebration that lit the Omani night, after 137 minutes of heroic football must have been deeply felt by the players, and certainly was by their supporters.
Certainly, this Omani side, under Coach Peter Tim van Verbeek, known as Pim, has improved since he took over from Juan Lopez Caro, and before him, the long serving Paul Le Guen.
The technical issues around ball retention, and their discretion as to where and when to play the ball to ‘free’ players, are both still hesitant. However, the players had certainly bought into a specific ‘game plan,’ which relied upon a quick transition of the ball through the midfield, where the Emirati’s appeared stronger.
If the team can use this magnificent win as a vindication of the effective merging of their own skill levels, fitness, and ability to implement the coach’s strategies, then the upcoming Asia Cup offers yet another opportunity to display consistency, maturity and mental strength.
Omani football has always had a talented player base, and a unique 95 per cent youth involvement in the sport which must be the envy of the world. The challenge now is to build on that, utilise the feelgood factor, and make these young men believe that they can be that good, if they work hard enough.
In fact, it is a clarion call to all Omanis, whatever they are doing, to be better than they are now, however good they are now.