Our Man in Muscat

I had blasted around Oman in a white saloon. I had trekked mountains, clambered desert dunes and seen green turtles lay their eggs on the corner of the Arabian peninsula. I was now in Muscat’s fish market with a serious problem: trying to locate where a second division football match, Al Ahli Sidab v Fanja, was being played the following day.

I spotted an Al Ahli Sidab shirt in the market. The wearer, like most Omanis, spoke good English and pointed me towards a man who was holding several dozen mackerel. He spoke little English, asked for Google Maps, and zoomed in on a clubhouse in the central district of Darsait. My phone may still smell of fish. I wasn’t convinced this was the correct place so the next day I drove to the national stadium – named after iconic ex-leader Sultan Qaboos – to try my luck there. The near empty car park promised little, but I bumped into a volleyball referee wearing a smart blue polo neck shirt. He agreed with mackerel man that the Darsait clubhouse was my best bet for my 5:15pm fixture.

Muscat is a strangely elongated capital city, stretching out on flat land between angular peaks and the azure Sea of Oman. I zipped along its central motorway to the Darsait clubhouse where the nearby pitch looked more Sunday league than Omani second division. I approached three black men in tracksuits sitting on the clubhouse steps. They were Senegalese and playing for Al Ahli Sidab that afternoon. Mackerel man and the volleyball referee were nearly right, but the game wasn’t being played in Darsait. The stadium was in Sidab, a suburb in a capital made up of suburbs, fifteen minutes’ drive east. I gave the club’s Egyptian physiotherapist a lift in my car and followed the Senegalese to Sidab.

Sidab has a coastal village feel, its harbour hemmed in by red rocky ridges. I pulled up next to the stadium, set further back from the sea, and spotted a cat lazily sleeping under another car. I ran up the concrete steps and was confronted by a terrific view: the grass pitch sandwiched between two mountainous peaks with a blue strip of sea in between. It was a desert version of watching football in the Faroes. I wasn’t the first spectator to arrive. Fanja’s superfan, wearing a bright yellow shirt with ‘Faisal’ written on the back, nervously paced around talking to himself. He then took a piss against the back of the only stand. I left him to it.

Fanja, the away team, hailed from a town thirty miles inland from Muscat. Fanja had been my first stop in Oman. I had slept fitfully on the red-eye from London and was so tired and distracted by pandemic paperwork that I left my baggage circling on the carousel. After negotiating officialdom to retrieve it, I took to the road in a new country with its own rules. Omanis drive as if they’re playing a video game and cars switched lanes without indication or deceleration. I stopped at a roadside cafe in Fanja for a break and breakfast. I ordered lamb hummus, flatbread and a black coffee that eroded the enamel off my teeth and strode towards the old town. Fanja was a microcosm of northern Oman, with restored fortifications on mountain ridges overlooking valleys densely populated with date palms. A friendly local offered me a lift. I passed on the offer. I was walking to keep myself awake.

The setting was stimulating enough at the stadium in Sidab. I snapped photos as the sun faded. Omanis arrived in white or black dishdasha gowns, their heads topped either with wrapped scarves or kuma, traditional rounded caps. One carried a large McDonald’s takeaway, correctly predicting that the stadium wouldn’t offer sustenance or, as Fanja’s superfan had found, toilets. 5.15pm arrived and passed without kick-off. I checked with my neighbour. “It’s 5.50pm, not 5.15pm” he corrected. I would spend ninety minutes waiting on the concrete steps, but the later time avoided any lingering heat and allowed for Maghrib prayers. The sounds from a green-tipped minaret echoed around the low mountains and a mysterious emerald light enveloped the pitch as the sun dipped and the red hues faded into grey.

Baba, the Senegalese defender I had met outside the Darsait clubhouse, spotted me as he trotted out for the warm-up. “You found your way” he chirped. Oman has been heavily influenced by immigration, both recently and, as a key trading route, over previous centuries. Salim, a Fanja fan sat to my left, explained how his father was born in Tanzania, and recruited by Fanja to play for them. The footballing links were now with West Africa. Salim said that foreign players could earn up to £1,000 per month to play in the Omani second division, and three times that in the top flight, with accommodation and transport provided. I could see the appeal. The Omanis were gentle people when not at the wheel, embracing tradition and modernity, and the immigrants that I spoke to, mainly from South Asia, seemed content working for them.

There was a gentle hubbub of male conversation during the match. Restrictions were still in place, with plastic chairs socially spaced for club officials, and the stadium felt like one of the few places in Muscat where locals could relax, safe in the knowledge that there would be little chance of attracting a £200 fine for not wearing a mask outside. Baba, the tall and powerful Senegalese, strode around purposefully, passing intelligently and showing recovery speed when Fanja’s sprightly attack threatened to break. The powerful defender then pounced on a loose ball from a second half corner to open the scoring for Al Ahli Sidab. Around half the stand cheered, with the remaining hundred or so supporting Fanja, historically a more successful team who had last been crowned Omani champions in 2016. Baba’s Senegalese team-mates were involved in two further goals as Al Ahli Sidab ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Fanja’s superfan wailed, the only sign of dissent.

I exchanged Twitter handles with Salim and returned to my car. It was completely blocked in by numerous identikit white saloons. But this was relaxed Oman. I patiently waited for the owners to return and the country’s only traffic jam to disperse. And sped off into the Arabian night.

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