Not even the most optimistic Omani football fan would have believed that their national team could recover from a woeful start to the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in which they failed to win any of their first three games, conceding six goals and scoring none.
An early exit seemed inevitable but Paul Le Guen’s charges showed they were far from finished, taking seven points from their last three matches and benefitting from Saudi Arabia’s defeat to Australia to squeeze into the fourth round.
Much of the credit for this dramatic late resurgence must go to Oman’s rearguard, especially the veteran pairing of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi and defender Hassan Mudhafar, who helped their side keep clean sheets in the final three third-round games.
FIFA.com spoke to the 31-year old Mudhafar about the team’s progress thus far and the challenges facing him and his teammates in the fourth round of Asian qualifiers.
Back from the brink
The comeback began against Group D front-runners Australia, with the Omanis recording a surprise 1-0 win against the side who had beaten them 3-0 in Sydney only a month before. Four days later Mudhafar and Co were in Riyadh, where they gave another defensive master-class to hold their Saudi hosts to a goalless draw for the second time in the group games.
And so it all came down to the final fixture against Thailand, when an indefatigable Mudhafar marshalled the defence from first to last. Oman’s 2-0 win on the night not only made amends for their 3-0 loss to the Thais in the corresponding away fixture, it proved enough to guarantee their passage into the fourth round.
Having been written off earlier in the group phase, Mudhafar is justly proud of his side’s achievement: “After our terrible start no one thought we could do it. However, the team pulled together and achieved the impossible in what was a very tricky group.”
“We did it by turning things round 180 degrees from the first three games,” explained the defender. “The dreadful performance in our first game against Thailand was a sore point, but thankfully we beat them convincingly on the return leg and showed everybody what Omani football is really about.”
Out of the frying pan…
Oman qualified from one of the toughest groups in the third round but the draw for the fourth phase of Asian qualifiers has been no kinder to them. The Group B they now find themselves in looks even more daunting, featuring as it does Asian powerhouses Australia and Japan as well as two dangerous outfits in Iraq and Jordan.
Far from being overwhelmed, Mudhafar remains confident that Oman have what it takes to do well: “Nothing’s impossible in football,” he insisted: “We want to prove that we’re a match for anybody.”
“Of course,” he added, “we know that we’re up against some very strong sides in Australia and Japan, but we’re not here for the fun of it. We’ll show people that we’re no pushovers.”
Mudhafar has played against all his Group B rivals before, either at the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 or in the preliminaries and finals of the AFC Asian Cup, and he has the confidence that comes with experience when he talks about Oman’s chances this time around: “Taking those previous encounters into consideration, I’d say that with a bit of luck our chances are good.”
“Our first game is against Japan,” he continued. “It will be a stern test because we’ll be playing away in very different conditions to those we’re used to in Oman. It won’t be easy but I hope we can get a good result ahead of our second match against Australia in Muscat.”
The veteran defender knows the value of a strong start to any campaign, saying, “If we want to go any further, we need to get good results in the opening two matches. We’re going to be treating them like finals where winning is the only option. That’s the only way we will achieve the dream of qualifying for the World Cup finals.”
The French connection
Oman is becoming known for its fondness for French coaches and it is an attachment that continues to bear fruit. Former national team manager Claude Le Roy led the Reds to victory at the 2009 Gulf Cup and now his fellow countrymen Paul Le Guen has the chance to lead his charges a step closer to Brazil 2014.
Mudhafar is quick to recognize the contribution that French football has made to his team’s success, but he also highlights the role played by Czech coach Milan Macala. “He’s the one who did the most to get us to where we are now,” Mudhafar said. “He laid the foundations for a strong, competitive national team.”
For now, though, the future looks French. “I hope we continue to shine playing the French way especially now Paul Le Guen has taken over the Olympic team. He nearly took them all the way to London before they fell at the final hurdle against Senegal,” the player said.
“Paul has done some excellent work with the side,” he added. “He’s scouted some great young players who are going to be the future the game in this country. Moreover he has brought a few of them into the first team.”
“At the end of the day no one expected us to get to this stage,” Mudhafar ended by saying: “We have proved that Omani football has a great future. We’ve got experience and talented youngsters and it’s a blend that’s going to take us far!”