x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A cautious optimism in Oman ahead of World Cup qualifier

Ali Khaled is in Muscat ahead of Oman's must-win Fifa World Cup 2014 qualifier against Jordan.

Ali Al Habsi, the Oman goalkeeper, seen here during a friendly with Ireland in September, hopes to see a packed stadium. Nigel French / EMPICS Sport
Ali Al Habsi, the Oman goalkeeper, seen here during a friendly with Ireland in September, hopes to see a packed stadium. Nigel French / EMPICS Sport

Tomorrow, Oman expects. And coach Paul le Guen is confident his team will deliver in one of the most important matches in the country's history.

"This is an important day for Omani football," he says, not overselling tomorrow's 2014 World Cup qualifier against Jordan at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat.

Oman are joint third – or joint bottom – in the five-team Group B of Asian qualifying for Brazil 2014, level with Iraq and Australia on two points, but the manager still has Brazil in his sights.

"It is not enough to compete," says Le Guen, whose team are also two points behind tomorrow's opponents, and eight behind group leaders Japan. "We are ambitious and we want to win, and qualify for the World Cup."

Such fighting talk was initially absent among Omanis when I landed in Muscat three hours earlier. So humble were the natives I came across that getting overexcited for this biggest of matches was deemed almost discourteous. There is no time for hubris in these parts.

In fact, my driver from the airport tells me, somewhat ridiculously, that while he hopes Oman will win, he would be "equally happy" with a Jordanian victory, as it would mean a fellow Arab country is doing well.

When it is pointed out that, with Japan heavy favourites to go through, any eventual Jordanian success would likely be at his country's expense, he shrugs. "Well, why should we complain if they deserve it."

But this is no ordinary match. Oman have never been in contention for a World Cup berth at such an advanced stage before. Quite frankly, I was hoping for a little more jingoism; and luckily it arrived in the form of another taxi driver.

"I believe we have a good chance of qualifying, and if we do hopefully we can perform better than Arab teams have done in the past," he says excitedly. "Do you remember when Saudi Arabia lost 10-0 in the World Cup?"

I tell him it was actually 8-0 to Germany, a point he duly ignores. "At least when Brazil came and played us here [in 2009], they struggled to win 2-0."

Perhaps feeling he had stepped out of line, he curiously repeats the line that a Jordan victory would be fine by him, too.

On Al Khwair, Muscat's main motorway, banners and flags advertising tomorrow's match, as well as the forthcoming one against Japan, are prominently displayed every 20 metres. The "Red Warriors", Gulf Cup winners in 2009, have got the country believing again.

Like the UAE, international matches in Oman often attract woefully small attendances. This, my intrepid driver explains, is due to inadequate media exposure and organisation, rather than supporter apathy.

The current heady levels of excitement came about only after widespread complaints from the public prompted the Oman Football Association (OFA) to increase advertising and raise awareness through online campaigns such as "Oman Football Support the Shirt Pledge", which offers the public the chance to win match tickets and other prizes. Good results help, too.

Expectations seem to rise by the conversation. A group of local journalists tell me that the Omani "street" is cautiously confident of victory. And for the first time in years, a full house of 25,000 is expected.

"We are expecting a full capacity crowd tomorrow afternoon," Fadhil Al Mazroui, the OFA's media officer confidently predicted. "I've never experienced such excitement and expectation among the fans."

Le Guen, however, is keen to keep a sense of perspective. Despite Oman's position in the group, the Frenchman laughs off suggestions that a draw would be akin to a defeat against a Jordan team rejuvenated by an excellent win over Australia.

"No, a draw is obviously still better than a defeat, and we would still be in with a chance of qualifying with four matches left," he says, before adding "of course we will play to win, and we will attack from the start."

Jordan's coach equally plays down expectations.

"The three points are important, but not decisive," says Adnan Hamad. "There will be enough chances to recover."

Jordan's captain Amer Deeb, who plays for Pro League side Kalba, believes despite several injuries, and suspensions to goalkeeper Amer Shafia and midfielder Basem Fat'hi, Jordan's recent training camp in Qatar will help the squad deal with the high temperatures expected for tomorrow's 5pm kick off.

A highlight of Jordan's victory over Australia was the wonderful atmosphere whipped up by the capacity crowd in Amman. Hamad is not concerned his players will be fazed by being on the receiving end this time.

"Home advantage is always important, and Oman are always good in their stadium," Hamad, said.

"But we are fully prepared and know what to expect."

It is that form, and support, at home – where Oman have yet to concede a goal in the qualifiers – that goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi is counting on.

"We are completely ready for this match, and counting on our fans to play a key role in the remaining home matches against Jordan, Japan and Iraq," the Wigan Athletic keeper says before, in typical Omani style, sending out a brotherly message to opposition fans.

"They will be welcomed like family here, Omanis are proud to receive Jordanians from all over the region."

But unlike those taxi drivers earlier in the day, Al Habsi's competitiveness allows for no sentimentality on the pitch.

"The Jordanian fans were brilliant against Australia, but we need our fans to be the same and help us to victory," he says. "We need to see the stadium full."

Do not expect many to still be sitting on the fence come kick off.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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