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Appreciating the journey

Despite not receiving a scholarship offer, Omar Al Balushi earned a spot on USF’s roster after trying out in the spring of 2014.  ORACLE FILE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

After being passed over by all major soccer programs in the United States, Omar Al Balushi took matters into his own hands. Undeterred, he moved to the states after high school to pursue his goal of playing collegiate soccer.

When Al Balushi received a list of American universities from his high school — St. George’s British International in Rome, Italy — the now-redshirt sophomore decided USF would be the best place for him to continue his education.  

His aim was to find a good academic environment to pursue a degree in economics and also earn a spot on the soccer team roster. 

“I was actually a walk-on,” Al Balushi said. “My plan was initially wherever I go, I’d try and get in with the team right away, and if that doesn’t work out, I’d probably transfer out.” 

Luckily for Al Balushi, he impressed the coaches enough at his tryout to earn a spot for the spring team and again later in the fall season. Coach George Kiefer said he’s seen the forward continually get better since he’s given him an opportunity.

“Every time Omar gets something, he always pushes and earns more,” Kiefer said. “He’s even started a game this year, all through a walk-on try out.”

The redshirt sophomore admitted that although he was confident going into his try out, he was nervous. 

“You’re always anxious because you’re there and everyone is looking at you,” Al Balushi said. “But I knew that if I do my thing I would make it on to the team.”

Although he wasn’t recruited, he is no stranger to playing on big stages. The midfielder was born in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman, but has lived in several countries because of his father’s work as a government official. 

Al Balushi was able to play for the Omani national soccer team for four years. But though it is the nation of his birth, he had to relearn the culture at age 16 as he had been away for so long.  

“I experienced a culture shock coming back to my own country,” he said. “I had to get used to the people and the culture, which is ironic because it’s my country. But as soon as you wear that national jersey or you hear that national anthem, it’s one of the proudest moments (of your life).”

Throughout his life, Al Balushi has struggled to make friends because of the many changes of environment. For instance, while living in Switzerland, he begged his parents to take him out of his kindergarten class because of the difference in culture and language. 

“I felt like I was an alien, people were talking in this (different) language,” he said. “I looked at my mother and told her, ‘Mom, please get me out of here.’” 

However, through all the difficulties, soccer has been there to help him through

“After some time, you start to acclimate, learn the language, and soccer helped me a lot,” Al Balushi said. “I’ve been able to make a lot of friends just from playing.”

He believes all the traveling has helped him learn new skills in soccer that have made him a better player today; specifically, he contrasted the strict disciplinary style of playing in Germany and the more laid-back style of Italy. 

“In my first training session, I was five minutes late,” Al Balushi said. “The coach told me ‘OK, if you do that again you’re out of the team.’ They don’t tolerate those kinds of things. Then, in Italy they have a much more laid back and relaxed atmosphere.”

These different styles have given Al Balushi a chance to get acclimated to any type of strategic system coaches want to implement. 

Kiefer believes that with his last two years at USF on the horizon, Al Balushi will be able to grow more and develop as a player to emerge as a potential star for the USF program. 

“Omar fits in to how we play,” Keifer said. “He’s always a player who will fit in here. We’re very pleased we have him for a few more years.”

Al Balushi doesn’t care if he becomes a star; he is just focused on making the team better by imposing his tireless work ethic in everything he does. 

“I’ll definitely work as hard as I can and help the team as much as possible,” Al Balushi said. “Hopefully we can go on to do big things together. It’s a great opportunity and we cherish every moment out there. I’m just looking forward to what’s coming.”

According to Kiefer, Al Balushi is a player you have to watch in order to keep him from overworking himself. 

“He’s a guy that we actually got to tell him to work less sometimes, because he always wants to work extra,” Kiefer said. “On the road there was a match where, after the game at the hotel, he went and did some stuff on his own to make sure he was keeping himself fit.”

Al Balushi also gives back to the community in Oman by coaching soccer at an academy for young children. He said it was a good learning experience to see the game from a different perspective — that of a coach rather than a player. 

Although soccer is a huge part of his life, the midfielder said he knows there are larger things out there. To complete his high school diploma, he had to complete service projects through which he got involved with the National Association for Cancer Awareness in Oman when a woman came to an event and spoke to him about the organization. 

“As soon as I heard her speak, it was all a matter of being a good person, which is what we advocate in (the USF soccer) program as well,” Al Balushi said.

After getting involved with the organization, he had an opportunity to go to a hospital and visit children affected with cancer. He said the event resonated deeply because he was able to see how he is able to change lives. 

“That was a tough experience,” Al Balushi said. “But at the same, it was unbelievable to see how just your mere presence can impact a human being that’s been suffering a lot.”

Al Balushi said he is grateful for the opportunity to play for USF and the opportunities it gives him to positively impact others’ lives, further his education and to continue playing the game he loves. Kiefer said he is pleased the 21-year-old decided to walk on to his team and is excited to see the end of his USF story in the upcoming years. 

“There are a million stories of wanting it to turn out like this that don’t,” Kiefer said. “So when it does turn out like this, it’s really special.”