On 23rd April, the Gulf Arab state of Oman will face off against Senegal in the surrounds of Coventry’s Ricoh Arena for a place at the 2012 Olympic Games. Progression to that stage of the qualification process is itself little short of miraculous. With a population of just two million and a league structure of 45 clubs - with support that would be unlikely to fill Wembley Arena - let alone the Stadium, the achievements of the national side far overshadow the domestic scene.
Although currently ranked 93rd in the FIFA World Rankings, the 21st Century has seen Oman consistently punching above its weight; making it to the final stages of the Olympic tournament would represent a new high. To reach this point, Oman successfully negotiated their way through the Asian qualifying group, before triumphing in a three-team round-robin against Syria (ranked 115th) and Uzbekistan (76th). Victory against the latter of those two sides came at the neutral venue of the My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam, courtesy of goals from captain Hussain Al-Hadhri and Rae Saleh, hardly household names outside of a passionate national contingent.
Therein lies the central curiosity of Omani football. While some 39,000+ boisterously packed the impressive Sultan Qaboos National Stadium for Oman's last international (a 2-0 2014 World Cup Qualifying win over Thailand at the end of February), barely two percent of that figure were present at the game between Ahli-Al Sedab and Sur. Of the 45 'professional' teams in the Omani pyramid, 12 sides comprise the first of three tiers (13 play in the Second Division, and 20 in the third). For two of those top-flight clubs to play out a mid-season fixture in front of fewer than 100 spectators offers a visible indication of the problems that beset attempts to get the national format of the game off the ground.
Oman only began to truly find its unified feet during the 1970s, when oil reserves were found in the sparsely-inhabited central region. Since then the country has flourished, willingly and eagerly embracing Western tendencies. That extends to sport, too, and Oman is attempting to blend the likes of football and basketball into the wider acceptance of a Middle Eastern sultanate.
The Omani people are friendly, genial and also very well-informed about global football. During my week in the country, I watched several televised La Liga, Premier League and Serie A games with a local journalist, whose factual knowledge of the game was remarkable. But finding anyone who could confirm that the game between Ahli-Al Sedab and Sur was indeed taking place on the evening in question was a nigh-on impossible task, and tracking down any subsequent match report presenting a further degree of difficulty beyond that.
The collective opinion towards the relative merits of the national versus domestic success debate in Oman is the very antithesis of how it is in England, for example, and that is a standpoint constructed almost entirely by the way in which the domestic game has been imposed upon people. There is no identification felt towards teams across the three divisions, and the entire structure has something of a US-style franchise system about it. A lack of local representation merely encourages further discourages any semblance of affiliation, with some teams even playing their home games up to 300 miles away from the area emblazoned on their club badge.
Yet the unquenchable fervour with which the national team is followed belies the ambivalence towards the domestic picture, and has helped the team to go unbeaten at home in their 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign (against Australia, Saudi Arabia and Thailand). The dual goal of achieving qualification for both the Olympic Games and the World Cup would represent one of which few Omani would even allow themselves to dream. But the majority of the Under-17 side which won the AFC Championship in 2000 still make up the bulk of the current senior squad. Now under the tutelage of Paul Le Guen, the progress made over the intervening 12 years (second in both the 2004 and 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations, then first in 2009) has been steady but resolute.
The chances are the only Omani international that will resonate with a UK audience is the Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, the only player the present squad to ply his trade outside the Middle East. But where one leads, others are likely to follow, and the likes of Imad Al-Hosni and Al-Hadhri are prime candidates to be picked up by clubs in Europe.
The standard of football on show in the country is relatively good, and though the basic comforts were lacking in my experience – there was no catering, no staff on show other than over-staffed policing – the action was competitive, with the majority being played on the floor. Aside from the names of teams and players, there is nothing to hugely distinguish Omani football from that played anywhere else, and it's a shame that so few people within a population evidently in tune with the game in the wider context choose to witness it.