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Miracle victory in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic World Cup trip with Oman
Branko Ivankovic has a dream. The Croatian coach, who led Iran to the world summit 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, as the sultanate has never qualified for the World Cup before.
A month ago, few would have given him a chance to achieve his goal, as the Omani national coach faced arguably the toughest start to Qatar 2022 – Japan away, followed by the ‘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 difficult, but I have the right to have a dream. Without ambition, without ambition and high goals, it is not possible to achieve what we want to do.
With the Group B matches approaching Australia (October 7) and Vietnam (October 12), the task does not get any easier. But with the right mindset, anything is possible.
“Maybe we are too ambitious, but I try to make my players understand a winning mentality and not to be afraid of anything.”
For an Asian player, few missions are more difficult than traveling to Japan to face the Samurai Blue. Even the best feel a sense of dread at the prospect.
But on a rainy night in Osaka last month, if Ivankovic’s team were scared, they certainly hid it well. They played football bravely throughout and, instead of curling up, took the game to Japan. They were the best team and created the best chances.
“The most important thing was to convince the players that the team can do anything, to play with the heart and maybe to surprise,” he said.
“The first game is always tough and tough, especially if you’re the home favorite; the players are under pressure. Oman is coming, maybe they think Oman is not such a difficult 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 and go home. I tried to convince them that we will try to beat Japan.
And that’s exactly what they did.
As time passed and the rain continued to fall, the game looked doomed to a 0-0 draw, which would still have been a fantastic result for the team ranked 78th in the world by FIFA.
But as Ivankovic turned to his substitutes bench, he followed the mantra he had worked so hard to instill in his players – always be bold.
So, with just under 10 minutes remaining, instead of taking the safe option and locking in to secure a famous point, he resumed the game by removing midfielder Zahir Al-Aghbari for striker Issam Al- Sabhi.
“We didn’t think of playing just defensively,” he said. “If you remember, we put in a second forward in the last 10-15 minutes which showed that we were trying to do something, not just put a defender in and keep him 0-0.”
He adds: “I felt we could do something because Japan at that time was not 100% and they couldn’t find any good solution to beat us.
It turned out to be a masterstroke as less than five minutes later Al-Sabhi ended a nasty cross from Salah Al-Yahyaei, passing the ball past a helpless Shuichi Gonda into the Japanese goal.
The strike gave Oman a lead that, across the game, they fully deserved – but which would have looked unlikely just two hours earlier.
“The most important thing for me was that we deserved this victory against Japan,” said Ivankovic, 67.
Asia was warned. Oman was not there to invent numbers.
While the victory in Japan was followed by a difficult 0-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, their performance in this game showed once again that they will not be child’s play. If Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali had converted a rock-solid chance in stoppage time, they would have come away with a very useful point.
Against Japan, they benefited from the surprise effect, but after their shock victory, they can no longer go unnoticed. Although delighted with the result in Osaka, the former Persepolis manager has no illusions about the latest challenges of the campaign.
“Our group is so, so tough,” he said.
“As you know, in that group there are Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, teams that have normally competed in the World Cup for the past 20 years. And of course, not just the tough teams, we also have a big problem with travel.
“We have to travel to Japan, Vietnam, China, Australia – and that’s a big problem too, not just for Oman but for all the teams.”
This travel burden has been eased somewhat by the announcement that their away game against Australia will now be played in neutral Qatar.
However, their record against the Socceroos is not pleasant to read, with just one win in their previous nine encounters and their last two games ending in 4-0 and 5-0 losses.
But carried by their miracle in Osaka, Ivankovic and his team know that anything is possible.
For now, they dare to dream.