With their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ ambitions hanging by a thread, Oman goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi has vowed that the Gulf nation will not relinquish their dreams without a fight. A disappointing Brazil 2014 campaign has accrued just one point to date from match-ups against Group D opponents Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Oman entertain Australia in Muscat tonight, where defeat against the continental heavyweights will render their campaign all but mathematically over.
Oman coach Paul Le Guen caused a shock for last month’s match in Australia by omitting captain Fouzi Bashir from the line-up in Sydney. Taking over the skipper’s armband for the first time was Al-Habsi. However, the 29-year-old Wigan Athletic shotstopper was unable to help his side avoid a 3-0 defeat against a slick Socceroo outfit. The scoreline was evidence that Oman have a mountain to climb if they are to return to their former glory.
Al-Habsi was front and centre as the tiny Sultanate won the Gulf Cup of Nations for the first time in 2009, having impressed at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup two years earlier. The latter saw the team eliminated in the group stage, but it took a last-gasp Tim Cahill equaliser to deny Oman a famous victory over Australia in the tournament opener.
“We have played three games against Australia before [last month] and all the time we had good games against them,” Al-Habsi told FIFA.com, in reference to a draw and two one-goal losses against the Socceroos since 2007. “When you play a team like Australia you have to concentrate for 95 minutes because their physical level is high and they have more experience.
“We have to concentrate more and give more. To get nine points will be hard but that will mean we go through. We have another three games, with two at home. We will give everything until the last game.”
So what is the difference between this campaign and recent years which saw those highly competitive match-ups against the Green and Gold? “Now we have many players from the Olympic team and we have less experience in the team,” said Al-Habsi.
“Out first two games in qualifying came within Ramadan so it was tough. Also our [domestic] league had not started. To be honest the team is more organised and fitter now. However the experience of the Australian team is far more than our team.”
Le Guen, Oman’s respected French coach who led Cameroon to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, shares Al-Habsi’s fighting spirit. “We will try our best and we will fight in Muscat against Australia and then against Saudi,” said Le Guen. “But I am clear-minded, it will be difficult. Australia is better than us and there is only one place available alongside Australia. But we have to fight and keep our chin up.
“The coach of Oman, be it me or someone else, has no choice, he must take risks. If we carry on with the older players, we won’t succeed. We have to wait for the future and have to learn to play with young players. I will try to work with them over the coming months to try to improve them.”
In Oman, and indeed the Gulf, Al-Habsi is somewhat of a pioneer. Regular first-team football in the bright spotlight that is the English Premier League makes Al-Habsi unique in Omani football. Three successful seasons at Norway's Lyn Oslo were followed by five seasons at Bolton Wanderers, albeit spent mostly on the bench. A move to Wigan last year kick-started Al-Habsi’s English career and last season the towering goalkeeper was named the club’s best player, playing a significant role as the Lancashire side narrowly avoided relegation on the last day of the season.
However few players from the Gulf venture outside the region, and those that do play internationally invariably ply their trade in neighbouring Gulf nations, with Bahrain striker Abdullah Omar at Swiss club Neuchatel Xamax a rare exception to the rule.
“I hope that I am a role model,” says Al-Habsi, his accent a somewhat endearing mix of inflections. “I hope that one day I will see another [Omani] player in Europe. My dream would be to see another Oman player in Europe or the Premier League.”