Taking to the pitch at a FIFA World Cup is the dream of almost everyone who ever kicked a football. It is also that of most professional players, but curiously not of Oman’s beach soccer sensation Yahya Al Araimi, who claims he never gave it a thought until recently.
The 27-year-old began his sporting career in track and field before switching to football, where a chance encounter led him to the Oman beach soccer scene. The change proved a judicious one with Al Araimi leading his team to the finals of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna/Italy 2011 after finishing runners-up in the Asian qualifying tournament earlier this year.
It was at the qualifying competition that the young star finally emerged as household name in the discipline, beating a host of established names to be crowned player of the tournament and announcing his arrival on the international stage.
A lucky break
Speaking exclsuively to FIFA.com, the former Oman athletics squad-member began by explaining how he came to swap the running track for football pitches: “I trained as a runner under national coach Mohamed Al Houti but my passion for football led to my joining Al Masnaa, where I played for six years.”
His involvement with the beach soccer national team came about rather more fortuitously, though. In 2009 Al Araimi was playing in an amateur football tournament organized by the Oman Football Association when he was spotted by coach Taleb Hilal, who plucked him from obscurity to join the country’s beach soccer team.
“I never dreamed of playing in a World Cup,” said Al Araimi. “I’d played for Al Masnaa and been selected for the Oman youth football team but it hadn’t worked out, so imagine my surprise when I finally got my chance at an amateur tournament and was picked for the beach soccer side!”
The former athlete regards his track background as central to his success as a beach footballer: “The game really appealed to me, because it’s full of skill and spectacular goals, and most importantly it makes certain physical demands on the player.”
His introduction to top-flight beach soccer came at the Asian qualifying tournament for Ravenna/Italy 2011, his six goals easing his side’s progress to the final, where they were finally overcome by a strong Japanese outfit. However, the pain of defeat was lessened for Oman by the reward of a berth in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finals, and a well-deserved best-player award for their newly discovered gem, Al Araimy.
“It was an indescribable feeling,” he said of receiving the accolade. “I’d been named best player from amongst all these stars of the game. But this award isn’t just down to me. All my team-mates put in the effort that helped me shine on the day, not to mention the contributions of the team’s technical staff and management.”
The award opened further doors for the modest Omani, including a move to Brazil beach soccer outfit Corinthians. When FIFA.com asked him about his time in Brazil, Al Araimi’s enthusiasm was evident: “Their offer took me completely by surprise. It was fantastic. I got the chance to experience the training regimes and the quality of the players over there, and it’s really motivated me. At first I was on the bench, but I got to enjoy it because I could watch the unbelievable skill of their players, and that was something I’d never experienced before.”
“I played alongside some of the stars of the world game, like Brazil internationals Benjamin, Buru and Mao, who’s considered the best goalkeeper in the world, not to mention Juninho. I can’t tell you how it felt to play with these guys.”
With much to be proud of already, Al Araimi has his sights firmly set on his next targets: an outstanding performance at Ravenna/Italy 2011 and helping his team make the latter stages of the tournament.
“It’s not impossible,” he insisted. “The World Cup’s a big event and it will be incredible to see the Oman flag alongside those of other nations. We’ll be going to the tournament to put on a show, and I reckon we can reach the quarter-finals at least.”
Though far from impossible, Oman have a tough task ahead of them in Group B, where they have been drawn alongside Argentina, El Salvador and perennial contenders Portugal. Though aware of the scale of the challenge, Al Araimi belives a good start is the key to progressing at the event. “We aim to win all our games. If we manage to beat Argentina in the first match then next up are El Salvador, and I’m sure we’ll make it through to the knockout stages. But we must concentrate on the first match: we want to take this tournament step by step.
“There’s no doubt it will be difficult,” the player added, “because Portugal are one of the best sides in the world and Argentina performed very well in their qualifiers, reaching the final against Brazil. El Salvador are something of an unknown quantity as far as we’re concerned.”
Nor does it seem that Al Araimi’s ambitions end with the tournament in Italy. “After taking part in this World Cup, my ambition is to play in Europe and then to take part in another beach soccer World Cup,” he said.
If Al Araimi is right and Oman pull off an upset in Ravenna, then there is every chance this exciting young talent will realise his latest goals.