Issam Al Sabhi earned hero status with his winner against Japan
The forward is hoping to lead Oman to Qatar 2022
He talks about the late start to his international career
In late 2017, a 20-year-old Issam Al Sabhi packed his bags to accompany the Omani national team on their trip to Kuwait for that year’s Gulf Cup. At the time, however, Al Sabhi was not an international footballer or even a member of the official Omani delegation. In fact, he was among a group of fans who travelled to cheer on Al-Ahmar during a triumphant campaign that saw them win the title for the second time after defeating United Arab Emirates in the final. Back then, Al Sabhi was still making his way through the youth teams at his club, Al Shabab, and only later would he star for the national U-23 team. That in turn led to a call-up to the senior side, with whom he debuted in October 2019 with a substitute appearance against Qatar in the second round of Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Oman coach Branko Ivankovic continued to use the 1.83m striker as a substitute in subsequent games, including his side’s opening fixture away to Japan in the final round of qualifiers for Qatar 2022. With the match tied at 0-0, Al Sabhi came on for Zaher Al-Aghbari in the 84th minute. Four minutes later, he had scored his first international goal, leading Oman to a historic victory over the Samurai Blue in Suita. “That match will certainly go down in history for me and the national team," Al Sabhi told FIFA.com. “Grabbing the three points against Japan away from home was definitely a fantastic start to this qualifying round. "It will always be one of the best games of my career because of what it meant to me and Omani football. We got our first-ever win against Japan, but what makes it more special is that it came on Japanese soil. My goal was Oman’s first of the final qualifying round and my first in an international competition.”
After a dream start against Japan, Al-Ahmar suffered back-to-back defeats against Saudi Arabia and Australia, with Al Sabhi coming off the bench on both occasions, getting 23 and 24 minutes respectively. He finally started for the team against Vietnam and scored his second goal of the campaign in a 3-1 win. The 24-year-old seems unconcerned whether he starts games or comes off the bench. “Every striker wants to score goals, and that applies to me, regardless of how much playing time I get or who our opponents are," he said. "That’s what is expected of me on the pitch.” Asked about the confidence coach Ivankovic has given him as an international, he said: "I started my international career late, but this was probably a good thing as it instilled in me the spirit of competition and a passion for achieving things and dealing with challenges. "The coach's confidence in me was clear from the very beginning. He’s played me in most games and has been my biggest fan. He’s one of the main reasons I’ve played so well, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I am what I am right now because of him.”
Currently third in Group B, Oman take on China PR in the section’s fifth matchday in Sharjah on Thursday, before hosting Japan five days later. Al Sabhi believes it is vital the team take three points against the Chinese before thinking about the encounter with Japan, who are level on points with Oman. “If we really want to go far in the qualifiers, we have to win our next game against China,” he said. "Our focus is on Thursday’s game against China. We’ll take it one game at a time, and we’ll worry about the Japan game later. "We’re level with Japan in third on six points, so we still have a good chance of reaching the World Cup. Naturally, we’ll do all we can to make that dream a reality.” Having made that colossal transformation from fan to national-team player, can Al Sabhi continue his remarkable journey and lead Oman to their maiden appearance at the global showpiece?