Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi believes victory for Oman in tomorrow's Olympic play-off in Coventry would provide another substantial breakthrough to football's final frontier. Long gone are the days when Europe and South America nurtured all the best players. Africa, east Asia, Oceania and North America have all provided a significant presence in the major leagues for well over a decade now. But the Middle East remains largely uncharted territory for English clubs.
Al Habsi is a lone presence in the Premier League and when the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ was awarded to Qatar, it provided the region with a target a target to raise their game for. Since, the United Arab Emirates have already secured a berth at this summer's Olympics and tomorrow night at the Ricoh Arena, Al Habsi will be cheering from the sidelines as Oman look to join them by beating Senegal.
"As a region, we are late starters," the 30-year-old told Press Association Sport. "But small things are making a difference for everybody. Sheikh Mansour is doing amazing things at Manchester City, Qatar has the World Cup, which is amazing. We had the Under-20s World Cup in UAE and Qatar. Now all the young players watch me a lot in the Premier League. They have the same dream."
Al Habsi notes with pride that since he took a chance and followed up the groundwork undertaken by John Burridge, who noted his ability during a stint in Oman, and joined Bolton in 2005, 21-year-old Emirates defender Hamdan Al Kamali has joined Lyon and Saudi Arabia international Osama Hawsawi just signed for Anderlecht.
Too often, progress has been hampered by an in-built desire for instant results. Oman, for instance, have gone through a staggering 27 international managers - including Ian Porterfield - in the last 30 years. Latest to try his luck is Paul Le Guen, who only lasted nine months at Rangers.
Yet Al Habsi has been impressed by Le Guen's methods, which will be transferred onto the Olympic set-up tomorrow. "None of the Arabic countries give the coaches a chance to build," he said. "Results are demanded immediately. You can't work like that in football. You have to give a coach chance to get to know the mentality of the players.
"That is what Le Guen is doing. He is trying to mix talented young players and mix them with experienced ones," the goalkeeper revealed. "Already we have reached the last stage of World Cup qualification, knocking out Saudi Arabia and beating Australia, which has never happened before. Now we are one game from reaching the Olympics, which would be the biggest footballing achievement my country has ever had."
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez gave Al Habsi permission to join up with his fellow countrymen immediately after yesterday's 2-1 defeat at Fulham, although, for now, his presence is purely motivational. However, should Oman make it through, Al Habsi intends to play in the Olympics. "I would love to be part of the Olympics," he said.
"I have played many games in the Premier League but this is something different. It would be the first time in our history we had ever qualified for a tournament such as this. That is why I want to be with the Olympic team this week and be behind the players, so every time they look, they will see me."
However, Al Habsi admitted tomorrow's game will be tough: "It is going to be far harder than any game I have played. It is a dream and everyone involved has to give everything."