The tiny Gulf nation of Oman stole the show in the latest installment of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking by rocketing 12 places up to 86th on the global pecking order.
Under Uruguayan coach Julio Cesar Ribas, Oman lost 1-0 to Bahrain on their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Asian Zone qualifying, third round opener on 6 February and, as a result, were dealt a six-place decline in the previous edition of the world ranking. A significant climb this time round, though, sees Ribas' side overtake Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Thailand to return to Asia's top ten.
According to the ranking, Oman are Asia's best and the world's third-best climbers for the last month as they eye a debut spot at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010.
It is not the first time Oman have made a big leap up the world ladder. They first stood out by soaring 37 places to 58th in November 1998, and from there they went on to impress again. Fiftieth place in August 2004 marked the culmination of great progress.
Oman's most recent achievement has come by way of hard work and largely on the back of a group of young players who first made their mark in the Asian arena in 2003. Under former Czech tactician Milan Macala, rampant Oman dominated that year's AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and even grabbed a victory over Korea Republic, booking a place at their first continental championship finals at China 2004.
Despite the opening 1-0 loss to Japan in the ensuing Asian Cup in July, Macala's team stunned Iran 2-2 in the next contest before defeating Thailand 2-0, results which were not enough to book their place in the second round but played a key factor in steering them to the aforementioned 50th in the August 2003 ranking.
Ribas taps youth
The young stars Macala nurtured include goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, playmaker Fawzi Basheer and striker Imad Ali, who remain the backbone of the current squad under Ribas, who took over early this year from Argentine Gabriel Calderon.
The first Omani to have played in Europe, Bolton Wanderers man Habsi has made the national team custodian jersey his own, while Basheer has developed into a highly creative player around whom the team rotates. In the attacking line, Ali remains a proven threat, scoring a brace in a 2-0 friendly win over Singapore on 27 January.
Although the team Ribas inherited is not short on talent, Oman were found lacking in the 1-0 qualifying defeat to Bahrain, a result which forced the Uruguayan boss to look to youth for new impetus.
After traveling to watch Omani league matches recently, Ribas has picked out 12 players to train ahead of the country's next FIFA World Cup qualifier against Thailand in Bangkok on 26 March.
"Three of these players are in the national reckoning for the first time and the others have played in the youth teams," said Omani Football Association General Secretary Taha Al Khisry. "Coach Ribas is training these players and aiming to include some of them in our World Cup squad."
It looks as if it is Ribas' turn to emulate his predecessor by putting his faith in the next generation.