Gulf Cup success lifts Oman

It was a historic moment for football in the Gulf when Oman captain Mohamed Rabia stepped up to the penalty spot at Muscat's Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex on Saturday and coolly slotted the ball past Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah.

The last action of the 2009 Gulf Cup secured a 6-5 penalty shootout victory for the hosts who, under French coach Claude Le Roy, claimed the regional honour for the first time.

Le Roy's joy
Oman's first real impact on the international stage was as joyous for the 70-year-old Le Roy as it was the thousands in the stands and on the streets of Muscat. Just six months after taking the role the journeyman coach had achieved unprecedented success for Oman.

"Half a year back I was determined to turn Oman into title-winners," said Le Roy who took the reigns last July in the wake of Oman crashing out of Asia's qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "Today the team did the nation proud. It was a great moment for all Omani people."

Oman is Le Roy's thirteenth coaching position and the sixth national team that he has presided over in a remarkable 30-year career.

Le Roy has previously tasted international success leading Cameroon to the winners' podium at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1988 but this success is especially sweet with the unfashionable Omanis achieving the first-time triumph on home soil. Oman more than meeting the expectations of the locals by demolishing Asian champions Iraq in the group stage, and then defeating regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia in the final.

"All was difficult at the beginning but we kept working hard and the team deserved to be the champions," he reflected.

A tale of two stars
Prior to the unprecedented success, Oman had twice gone close to winning the Gulf Cup, reaching the tournament final at Qatar 2004 and UAE 2007. But on both occasions they failed at the final hurdle, losing out at the hands of the respective hosts. In the 2004 they were edged out by Qatar who won the final on penalties and three years later a belated strike from Emirates midfield genius Ismail Matar condemned them once again to second place.

Instrumental in the 2009 success were free-scoring midfielder Hassan Rabia and highly-regarded goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi. Rabia proved to be Oman's biggest revelation during the campaign. The 24-year-old debuted with the national team under former coach Milan Macala but his talents were cultivated by Le Roy, who bestowed upon him a regular berth in the starting line-up.

It didn't take too long for Rabia to repay the coach's faith in him. After failing to find the net in the opening goalless draw against Kuwait, Rabia rose to the occasion in the second game against Iraq, contributing three goals in their memorable 4-0 win over the Asian champions. He scored the only goal of the semi-final against Qatar, thus ensuring his status as the tournament's top scorer.

With Rabia in prolific form, Al Habsi did an equally crucial job between the posts, remarkably going throughout the tournament without conceding a goal. The 28-year-old, who is now in his fourth season at English side Bolton Wanderers, best demonstrated his skills against Qatar in the semi-final. After Rabia put Oman ahead early on, Al Habsi produced a number of key stops to help his country to victory and with it the award for Best Goalkeeper of the Gulf Cup.

Oman may have failed to reach Asia's final round of qualifying for South Africa 2010, however, with an experienced boss like Le Roy at the helm and inspired by the likes of Al Habsi and Rabia, the Gulf side have indicated they are capable of meeting future challenges with confidence.