The beautifully ornamented skywalk at Al Khwair catches the first rays of the sun as we drive down to Muttrah, the old port of the old city. On either side of the road, scores of banners announce a football match at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. This match is between Oman and Jordan, a FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil- Asian Qualifier. We are in Muscat, Sanjay Austa and I as part of a National Geographic Traveller India assignment to cover the best of Oman. He is a professional photographer, armed with his camera and other weapons. I am armed with my wits, mostly.
|Banners, banners everywhere|
Each day, as we move through the city and cover the sights, the port, the Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House, these banners intrude on our consciousness. Oman versus Jordan. Until we can take it no more and ask Joe, our host rather tentatively, if we can do something about it. ‘Khallas!’ he replies, as he has for our every request over the last three days. Consider it done.
At night, in our rooms, we are surprised to receive, not a ticket to the game, but a Press Card. It is encased in a plastic pocket, complete with a lanyard a quarter inch thick with FIFA 2014 BRAZIL stamped in tickertape fashion on it. It takes a while for this to sink in. I take a photo with my mobile phone, just in case the card dissolves in front of my eyes. We are going to go to a FIFA match! Not Brazil, but the next best thing.
The next evening, despite our efforts to complete our assignments on time, we are late as we arrive at the Sultan Qaboos. Soon after noon, large groups of people make their boisterous way in the general direction of the stadium. Some are dressed in red, the colours of the Omani team, others in the very comfortable national dress- a flowing white dishdasha, a turban, with a sheathed khanjar, or ceremonial dagger.
|Before the match|
The evening is just turning the shade of Syrah Rose and loud noises are already emanating from the bleachers. Joe tells us that every Omani in the city can be expected to turn up. Shouldn’t we hurry then, we ask? ‘Khallas!’ Joe responds, and we are transported into the complex, and as if on a magic carpet that does not quite know where it is supposed to land, hastily shunted through a side door, and deposited, not in the stands, but on the playing pitch.
And so it comes to pass that, ten minutes after the kickoff at 17:00 hours, on the 16th of October 2012, I find myself planted squarely on the playing field of a FIFA World Cup qualifier, not twenty feet away from the Omani goalpost, a member of the Press. We are ceremoniously given press vests to put on over our shirts, and warned to return them at the end of the game. Like the players, I feel the weight of 26,500 spectators on my back. I walk up and down the sidelines, the best place to watch this match, with other members of the press, the photographers, the coaches and support staff.
There is an incessant roaring in my ears, and from my vantage I hear cheers in 5.1 Surround Sound. A goal is missed on the Jordanian side, and, as if immersed in a Dolby universe, I hear the practiced genuflection of a Mexican wave whoosh past me, left to right. The sound a Mexican wave makes is much more impressive than just watching it, I can tell you that. It goes round the stadium two or three times before it dies out.
The match, such as it is, is fraught with injury. Players make their mandatory dives and feints, everyone seems to be inspired by Arjen Robben. The injury cart is regularly trotted up the playing green and prone players are removed from the proceedings for triage and diagnostics. I have decided to become a partisan Oman supporter. Puttroo, men! I shout, several times, but my voice is drowned out in the general hubbub.
|the injury cart|
Before I know it, it is half time.
Oman nil, Jordan, nil.
The match resumes, and just when the proceedings threaten to become dreary, at 62 minutes into the game, No 12, Ahmed converts a corner kick. Oman one, Jordan nil. General pandemonium and hot air ensues. The crowds are vocal, but not unruly. At 87 minutes, Darwish of the Omani National Team put in a second one. Congratulations and Celebrations. Much head banging. Someone in the far stand lights fireworks. Smoke billows, an unnerving sight, for a bit. But the beautiful game goes on. At 89 minutes Jordan equalises. Not a peep from the stadium. The silence of the dead, with hovering white shrouds everywhere. The crowd is as partisan as I am.
|The moment Darwish of Oman puts the second one in|
Oman two, Jordan one.
Soon 90 minutes are over and three minutes of injury time commence. Incredibly, Jordan scores. The referee declares offside. No goal. From every stand a high pitch whistling rises. Screeeeeee! Like a legion of bats has descended into the stadium. In the melee, the last minutes tick by.
Oman two, Jordan one.
I am happy to report that my newly adopted team, Oman wins. They will go on to play Japan in the next round, and be soundly trounced. Bleddy!
The Omani National Team celebrates on the pitch. The crowds celebrate as they leave the stadium. Roads fill with cheering supporters. Makeshift musical instruments appear out of nowhere. Some vigorous dancing is punctuated by the ululating tongues. Some of the players themselves join in the dancing with the punters. It is a small country.
While returning to the changing rooms, one of the last players in, Abdul Aziz, I think, gets into serial handshaking mode with the enthusiastic crowd. One thing leads to another, and soon, clutching handfuls reach out to divest him of him team jersey. Off it goes and, in a blink, it is swallowed by the general populace. Poor Aziz has to go and face his team mates, half naked.
And now the hurlyburly’s done, and the battle lost and won. We are able, for few last moments, to walk on the playing field itself. I cut a lonely figure on the FIFA pitch, take a photo of myself with one hand. All around my feet lie the debris of the match.
|After the hurlyburly’s done|
|Joe and Sanjay|