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Kuala Lumpur: After 14 years in Europe, one of West Asia’s most successful footballing exports, Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, returned to the Gulf region, officially completing a three-year deal on Monday with 2017 AFC Champions League quarter-finalists Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.

The 35-year-old, who was named the Royals’ Player of the Season in April for a second consecutive year, had previously been at Wigan Athletic for five years as well as taking in spells at Bolton Wanderers and Norway’s Lyn Oslo.

We profile the English FA Cup winner following his move back to his home continent to learn more about his football journey.

Beginning a legacy

Al Habsi’s return to Asia as a marquee signing by Al Hilal not only marked a significant moment for the Omani, but is also a reminder of just how far the 35-year-old had come having worked as a part-time fireman at Muscat International Airport as a teenager on the fringes of a third division team in the amateur domestic scene as well as the Oman U-17 side.

“When you are playing in the third division in Oman and not professional, your dream is just to watch football on TV,” recalled Al Habsi. “When I was playing in the third division I was dreaming of playing in the first division with a big club in Oman.”

Born in a village on the outskirts of Muscat, Al Habsi began his career with modest hometown club Al Midhaibi before making the step up with Al Nasr and winning the Sultan Qaboos Cup.

John Burridge

John Burridge in his playing days at Hibernian.

It was during this period of his career that Al Habsi was spotted by well-travelled former goalkeeper John Burridge, who was working as a coach with the Oman national team.

“John Burridge made a big difference in my life. There might be hundreds of Al Ali Habsi’s in Oman, but they didn’t have that one person who can help them and take them to another country and show the rest of the world we have these players,” said Al Habsi.

“John Burridge saw the talent I had when I was 17 and told me it was the right time to go abroad. He is a legend in England, he played more than 700 games, and when he says he has a player he has the respect following his career in England.”

Move Overseas

Burridge quickly identified an unearthed talent in the teenager and fast-tracked Al Habsi up through the national team ranks to the first team and eventually, through his connections, on to trials in England. 

Work permit issues delayed Al Habsi’s move to England, although Europe still beckoned with Norwegian First Division side Lyn Oslo 

“When you have a target and hope for yourself to achieve something in the future you can do it. I had the skill, I just had to work hard and take the right things from the managers and people at the clubs and that’s what I did. I did not rush, I had a vision,” said Al Habsi. 

“Others players now want to achieve everything straight away and they can’t do that,” said Al Habsi. “When you are playing in the Middle East and you want to play in the top league, it is impossible. From my experience of the last 11 years, you have to go step-by-step and obtain the experience.” 

Al Habsi quickly adapted to his new surroundings in Norway and after three successful years, he signed for Bolton Wanderers in January 2006. 

“The three years in Norway was the right decision because if I went to England for those three years, I don’t think I would have made it. There were many reasons like work permit and experience that I had,” he said.

“Maybe I would go to the second division, but I think the Norwegian league is better than these lower leagues with many good teams. It was a really good three years and I was named best goalkeeper in the league, we got to the cup final and we finished third in the league, it was a good three years and after that I was ready.” 

The Premier League

Al Habsi would only make 18 appearances for Bolton due to the presence of first-choice goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and alternated with Ian Walker for the role as deputy, although those would include outings in the UEFA Cup during the 2007/08 season having earlier appeared in the qualifying rounds for Lyn Oslo. 

“I knew it would be hard for me. Jussi was one of the best in the league at that time and even this year he went back six years and made a big difference with West Ham,” said Al Habi. “I learned a lot from him and sometimes it is good to stay on the bench.” 

With his club career on the rise, Al Habsi’s international prospects were also flourishing with appearances at the AFC Asian Cup in 2004 and 2007 before helping Oman win the Gulf Cup for the first time in 2009. 

Al Habsi eventually joined Wigan, initially on a season long loan in 2010, and after a successful season where he was named the club’s Player of the Year, the move became permanent in July 2011. 

Wigan Athletic

The move to Wigan brought with it new challenges as Al Habsi had to adapt to the contrasting style of the long ball game utilised by then Bolton manager Sam Allardyce compared with the more cultivated passing style preferred at Wigan under Roberto Martinez. 

“With Big Sam you just had to kick and the job was done, but with Roberto you have to play with the back four and improve your skill,” said Al Habsi. 

“And I have improved a lot and I really enjoy it because now in England and the rest of the world, the goalkeeper is not just there to save the ball, 50% of your game, you have to be very good with your feet and how you control the ball and control the game.” 

Al Habsi’s stock continued to rise at Wigan with increased transfer speculation, although he was forced to endure an injury hit 2012/13 season and was used sparingly during the Premier League run-in.

Moreover, as captain of a national team battling to qualify for their first-ever FIFA World Cup finals appearance, the agony for the sidelined Al Habsi was immense.

Forced to sit in the stands due to a shoulder injury, the country’s most famous footballing son was left to watch helplessly as Oman narrowly missed out on qualification for Brazil 2014. 

Al Habsi was also an unused substitute for the FA Cup final despite having featured in the semi-final at Wembley a month earlier as Wigan recorded a 2-0 win over Millwall. 

But any thoughts of disappointment after missing out on the final were soon forgotten as the sight of a beaming Al Habsi with the famous trophy in one hand and his national flag clutched in the other confirmed the historic achievement for the former fireman. 

“I am so happy with the FA Cup win. I am so proud because I was part of the team,” said Al Habsi.

“In football, it is not about one player, the group of players is part of the trophy. I played the semi-final, but I had not played for the last 10 games in the league or the cup and it was really hard with my injury.” 

Joining the Royals

After over 100 league games for the Latics, the custodian signed up with second-tier side Reading in the summer of 2015 summer after a successful trial.

Al Habsi made his Reading debut in the League Cup against Colchester United, with his first league start coming in a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough later in October.

By the end of the 2015-2016 season, Al Habsi’s stellar efforts between the goalposts saw him voted as the club’s Player of the Season and the goalkeeper played a vital part in Reading’s surge to the Play-Off Final the following season.

The Omani was an ever present in the league campaign that saw Jaap Stam's men finish third in the Championship, beat Fulham across two legs in the semi-final and reach Wembley.

Winning the Player of the Season award for the second successive season, Al Habsi saved a penalty in the shootout, but it wasn't enough to earn him a return to the top flight.

Back to Asia

It did, though, earn him a return to Asia, nearer to his family in Oman.

“It was a really tough decision to take. I had spent two great years at Reading and it felt like home with friends, family and teammates. No one can imagine the support and love that I received from the fans and club,” Al Habsi said on his Instagram account.

“Al Hilal are one of the greatest clubs in Saudi Arabia and Asia.”

The player has gone straight to the club’s summer camp in Austria and he is set to be in goal when the Saudi giants face Emirati side Al Ain in the AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg on August 21 at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.

“Ali is a national hero – and it is his drive and determination to succeed that we want to see in every Omani,” says Sayyid Khalid Hamed Hamoud Al-Busaidi, who was Oman Football Association Chairman from 2007 to 2016. 

“Ali has shown what is possible when you combine talent with hard work and be a professional with a dedicated approach. He is a fine footballer but most of all, he is a proud Omani and the country loves him for that.” 

Photos: Lagardère Sports