Afghan girls’ soccer squad find new home in Ronaldo’s Portugal

Afghan girls’ soccer squad find new home in Ronaldo’s Portugal

Miracle win in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic trip to World Cup with Oman

Branko Ivankovic has a dream. The Croatian coach, who led Iran to the global showpiece in 2006, wants to return to the FIFA World Cup.

For a man with such a dream, Oman is not the usual destination of choice, with the sultanate having never previously qualified for the World Cup.

A month ago, few would have given him a chance of realizing his goal, as the Omani national coach faced arguably the toughest start to qualifying for Qatar 2022 — Japan away, followed by Saudi Arabia at home.

“I came to Oman because I want to go to the World Cup,” Ivankovic told Arab News.

“Of course, I know it will be very hard and tough, but I have a right to have a dream. Without ambition, without high ambition and goals, it’s not possible to realize what we want to do.”

With Group B matches against Australia (Oct. 7) and Vietnam (Oct. 12) coming up, the assignment does not get easier. But with the right mindset, anything is possible.

“Maybe we are too ambitious, but I try to get across to my players a winning mentality and not to be scared of anything.”

For a player in Asia, few assignments are tougher than traveling to Japan to face the Samurai Blue. Even the very best feel a sense of trepidation at the prospect.

But on a rainy night in Osaka last month, if Ivankovic’s team had any fear, they certainly kept it well hidden. They played brave football throughout and, instead of cowering, took the game to Japan. They were the better team and created the better chances.

“The most important thing was to convince the players that the team can do anything, to play with a full heart and maybe to make a surprise,” he explained.

“The first game is always hard and tough, especially if you are the favorite playing at home; the players are under pressure. Oman coming, maybe they’re thinking Oman is not such a tough team, they will be easy.

“From the first day of preparation I tried to convince my players to go to Japan not just to play the game and go home. I tried to convince them that we’re going to try to beat Japan.”

And that is exactly what they did.

As time ticked by and the rain continued to fall, the match looked destined for a 0-0 draw, which still would have been a fantastic result for the team ranked 78th in the world by FIFA.

But as Ivankovic looked to his substitutes bench, he followed the mantra he had worked so hard to instil in his players — always be bold.

So, with a little under 10 minutes remaining, instead of taking the safe option and locking down to secure a famous point, he took the game on, taking off midfielder Zahir Al-Aghbari for striker Issam Al-Sabhi.

“We didn’t think about just playing defensive,” he said. “If you remember, we put on a second striker in the last 10-15 minutes, which showed that we tried to do something, not just put a defender and keep it 0-0.”

He adde: “I felt we could do something because Japan at that time wasn’t 100 percent and they didn’t find any good solutions for how to beat us.”

It proved a masterstroke as less than five minutes later Al-Sabhi got on the end of a wicked cross from Salah Al-Yahyaei, side footing the ball past a helpless Shuichi Gonda in the Japanese goal. 

The strike gave Oman a lead that, on the balance of play, they fully deserved — but one that would have seemed improbable just two hours earlier.

“The most important thing for me was that we deserved this win against Japan,” the 67-year-old Ivankovic said.

Asia was on notice. Oman were not here to just make up the numbers.

While the win in Japan was followed by a tough 0-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, their performance in that game showed again they will be no pushover. Had Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali converted a gilt-edged chance in stoppage time, they would have walked away with a very handy point.

Against Japan they had the benefit of the element of surprise, but after their shock win, they can no longer fly under the radar. While delighted with the result in Osaka, the former Persepolis manager is under no illusions about the campaign’s remaining challenges.

“Our group is so, so tough,” he said.

“As you know in this group there’s Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, teams which normally participate in the World Cup in the last 20 years. And of course, not just hard teams, we also have a big problem with travel.

“We have to travel to Japan, Vietnam, China, Australia — and this is also a big problem, not just for Oman but for all teams.”

That travel burden has been eased somewhat by news their away game against Australia will now be played in neutral Qatar.

However, their record against the Socceroos does not make for pretty reading, with just one win in their previous nine encounters, and their two most recent matches ending in 4-0 and 5-0 defeats.

But buoyed by their Osaka miracle, Ivankovic and his team know anything is possible.

For now, they are daring to dream.

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