BY KARAN TEJWANI
They say you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper and current Reading number 1, Ali Al-Habsi, fully embodies that statement. The Oman native is the first Gulf Arab to play in England’s top division and his quality has seen him make an immense impact in the country for more than a decade. His story is not easy one and can be an inspiration to footballers all over the world, especially those that are experiencing the same fight to make it as he did before being discovered.
John Burridge, the former eccentric goalkeeper for the likes of Southampton, Newcastle United and Manchester City in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, was a frequent visitor to the Gulf and is the man often credited with unearthing the talents of Ali Al Habsi. Burridge was influential in moving Al Habsi to his first European Club, Lyn Oslo of Norway, and later Bolton Wanderers, who were flourishing under Sam Allardyce. The former goalkeeper-turned-coach has an enormous affection for young goalkeepers in the region, and his expertise and inspiration have been vital to Al Habsi’s success over the course of his career.
It’s his early life that adds the gloss on his story. Before he was an amateur player and a representative of local clubs Al Mudhaibi and Al Nasr, he spent his immediate post-high school years as a fireman at Seeb International Airport in the Omani capital of Muscat. It was here that he learned many lessons in his life and cites it as majorly beneficial before he went on to extinguish fires between two posts on a football pitch. He recalls: “It was a challenging choice. Frequent fire-fighting drills occupied my days and though I never got the opportunity to douse an actual fire, I gained quite a few lessons on life. Had it not been for football, I would have continued to be a fireman.”
The watching world first got a show of his ability and swift reactions in Bolton’s game against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in the UEFA Cup in 2007. For a man who was used to playing in front of a little under 500 people for most of his time back home in Oman just a few years earlier, coming to one of Europe’s biggest stadiums to square off against one of the most prestigious clubs in the world would’ve proved a daunting task for most – and especially on only his second appearance for the club; but not for Al Habsi, who had nerves of steel that evening.
One of the chances fell to the mercurial Franck Ribéry, who ended an electric move with a fizzling, albeit deflected shot, only to see it wonderfully saved by Al Habsi who reacted ever so well to reach low down to his left to send the ball away for a corner. Another attempt fell to the up and coming Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was still in his days as a winger. His shot after a strong run seemed destined to end up in the top left, and once again, Al Habsi stopped it at full stretch. His performance that night earned the Trotters a 2-2 draw; a historic result for a club that was used to yo-yo’ing up and down divisions for much of the previous few decades.
Meanwhile, Al Habsi’s starring role that night failed to do much for his chances of breaking into the Bolton first-team setup. That showing, plus 15 other appearances that season, only saw two more added to it over the next three seasons – a paltry amount for a goalkeeper of his calibre. But despite not playing too often, he had a story that would, in standard situations, garner egotism. However, Al Habsi’s humble beginnings in the deserts of Muscat ensured that he always kept his feet on the ground: “In Oman, we are just happy to see games of Premier League on the television, so I tell you, I was not thinking that one day I would reach this level.”
The 2010-11 season offered him a chance to revive his English dream with a season-long loan at local rivals Wigan Athletic, who themselves were going through a crisis at the back. They were flirting with relegation for much of the campaign, and had it not been for some of Al Habsi’s saves over the course of the campaign, the drop to the Championship could’ve come in embarrassing fashion. They secured their Premier League status on the final day with an away win over Stoke City. Al Habsi was voted Wigan’s Player of the Season, an award which sealed a permanent move to the Latics.
While his stint at Wigan didn’t provide the same glamour of European football as Bolton, it was here that he felt more wanted – and won his first trophy in the country. In 2013, at the end of a disastrous league campaign, Wigan made it all the way to Wembley for the FA Cup final against a troubled Manchester City side, who had won the Premier League a season prior. And even though he didn’t appear at the final, with Joel Robles being preferred to him, he had a part to play in the earlier rounds. Wigan won that afternoon in dramatic circumstances, with Ben Watson scoring the winner in the 88th minute.
Al Habsi’s contributions weren’t forgotten. Ed Jones, head of media relations at Wigan Athletic sprinkled a touch of gratitude during the celebrations at the stadium that afternoon after he handed out the Omani flag to the goalkeeper and showed Wigan’s appreciation towards the man: “It was such an amazing moment for all of us, you know, Ali included. I got the Omani flag and put it around his shoulders. You can see the pride that he has in coming where he’s from. And he has been an ambassador. As I said, for us as a football club, but also for the Middle East and for Oman.”
He’s been equally as great for his country, racking up 118 caps, with more yet to come and he’s even won some silverware for his country – the 2009 Gulf Cup of Nations. A class act off the pitch, Al Habsi used his expertise from his firefighting days to start up Safety First, a non-governmental organisation with the aim of reducing fatalities resulting from car accidents and regards it as the least he could’ve done to give back to his community.
Wigan were relegated after their FA Cup triumph and have been banished in obscurity ever since, with Al Habsi moving on in 2014, first to Brighton and Hove Albion – where he made one appearance in a loan spell – and then to Reading on a permanent deal in 2015. He’s been crucial to Jaap Stam’s Royals who are gunning for a return to the Premier League, and at 35, Al Habsi is equally as passionate in getting some more minutes in the top flight of English football: “My dream is to get back to the Premier League. I experienced some beautiful moments there. I’m ready to take up the challenge again. Sometimes, you need to go backwards before you move forwards again,”
A career that’s been brilliant against all odds, Al Habsi is a legendary figure in parts of England and as he approaches the twilight of his career, he can look back at it with pride, and provide the same inspiration that John Burridge provided to him back when he was still hoping to get a chance to set off a fire in the desert.