LONDON: When Omani defender Mohammed Al-Musalami took down Ali Mabkhout in the 89th minute of last week’s Gulf Cup final, all seemed lost for Oman. With Asia’s best player, Omar Abdulrahman, stepping up to take the penalty, there was surely no way back.
“I thought it was over for sure,” a very hoarse Oman coach Pim Verbeek exclusively told Arab News on his way back to his native Holland.
“You have no time to score another goal, especially against a team that didn’t concede one goal for the whole tournament. So I thought it was done, but this is football and sometimes you need a little bit of luck to be successful.”
Lady luck, however, was certainly smiling on Oman as Faiyz Al-Rashidi guessed the right way and saved the spot kick, keeping alive Oman’s title hopes. It was Al-Rashidi who was again the hero in the penalty shootout, denying Abdulrahman a second time before Mohsin Al-Khaldi tucked away the deciding penalty to win the unlikeliest of titles for Oman.
“It felt unrealistic of course,” Verbeek said of the moment Oman’s triumph was secured.
“We all got unbelievably excited when the goalkeeper saved the penalty and when the fans were down on the stadium, it was great to be there.”
Even Verbeek was forced to admit that not even he expected to be lifting the silverware come the end of the tournament.
“Of course we were surprised we went so far,” he said.
“We had to play a couple of finals, we had to beat Saudi Arabia of course in the third match, then you have the tough game against Bahrain and then you play the final against the UAE. There are no easy games, you have to fight and work very hard to score a goal and not get a goal against.
“Every team could beat every team, so we surprised a lot of people but to be honest we were also surprised ourselves. I knew we had a good team, they were growing into the tournament and it was great to see.”
The improbability of Oman’s success only added to the celebrations inside the stadium in Kuwait, and back home in Oman. With a croaky voice from days of partying and a small chest infection, Verbeek told the story of the fun that followed last Friday night’s game.
“The celebrations in Oman were unbelievable,” the 61-year-old said.
“I heard immediately after the game they were even bigger than when we arrived the next day, because nobody expected it and then with the penalties and 120 minutes, it gave an extra feeling for the fans and for everybody.
“So what I’ve heard, (everyone was) outside and in the cars, they didn’t sleep. The only difference to Europe is they don’t drink and that makes it a more easy and more relaxed evening.
“The celebration in the stadium when we arrived was fantastic, very well organized (and) a full stadium. They did very well and it was very respectful for the players and the staff, it was a great evening.”
The win was also a personal milestone for Verbeek, who has had previous stints in charge of South Korea, Australia and Morocco’s Olympic team, marking the first major trophy he has won in his long career.
“Of course we did the (World Cup) qualification with Australia (in 2010), I did the qualification for the Olympics with Morocco (in 2012), but this is special,” he said.
“I know it’s not the biggest tournament in the world, but for the Middle East it is and if you see the celebrations around it then I’m very proud to win the Gulf Cup because that means for the rest of my life I will be connected with Oman, and that feels good.”
Like any good coach, Verbeek’s attention has already turned to the future and preparing for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE in 12 months’ time. Ever the perfectionist, while Oman has already qualified, Verbeek has told his players that they must finish top of the group.
“Yeah we have a plan already for the whole year, but it’s just a plan on paper,” he said.
“We have to fill in the dates and the friendly matches and where we’re going on training camps and what we’re going to do.
“We play Palestine (in March), we have to beat them to be number one in our group. We’re already qualified, but still we’d like to be number one in the group. And in the upcoming months we’re going to prepare everything for 2019 and the Asian Cup.”
But he knows from his vast experience in Asia the tests will only get tougher from here, and that as good as a Gulf Cup trophy is success in the Asian Cup is a very much tougher to achieve.
“The Asian Cup, of course that’s a different level of tournament,” he said.
“Gulf Cup is a lot about emotion and media attention and everything around it.
“It’s also only in one city, so that makes it extra interesting. But Asian Cup is different, and the top eight from the AFC are joining the tournament, and then you’re talking about the big teams like Japan, Australia, Korea, China, should not forget China, Iran to give you a few names.
“So we have to improve, (and) I still think we can improve. There’s a very talented Olympic team in Oman, we just have to wait if they can make the step to the next level, but that’s one of the things we are going to find out in the upcoming months.”