Kuala Lumpur: From Omani minnows Al Mudhaibi to English FA Cup winner with Wigan Athletic, Ali Al Habsi's unorthodox path towards becoming Oman's finest player of all-time has earned him a place on the-AFC.com's Asian Icons list.
Ali Al Habsi once harboured modest dreams of being able to watch top class football on TV. Now, at the age of 38 and having retired from international football earlier this year, the Omani legend can reflect back on an illustrious career that took him to Norway, England and Saudi Arabia.
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A Country’s Hope
In May 2013, Al Habsi arrived at Muscat International Airport to a rapturous welcome having been part of the Wigan squad which defied all odds to win the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Manchester City at the start of May.
“Ali is a national hero – and it is his drive and determination to succeed that we want to see in every Omani,” said then Oman Football Association Chairman Sayyid Khalid Hamed Hamoud Al Busaidi.
“Ali has shown what is possible when you combine talent with hard work and a professional and dedicated approach. He is a fine footballer but most of all he is a proud Omani and the country loves him for that.”
Al Habsi was an unused substitute for the showpiece 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.”
Al Habsi’s celebrated homecoming not only marked a significant moment for Omani football, but also was a reminder of just how far he 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.
Born in a village on the outskirts of Muscat, Al Habsi began his career with modest hometown club Al Mudhaibi before making the step up with Al Nasr and winning the Sultan Qaboos Cup. 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 Ali Al 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."
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.
A Move Abroad
“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.
“Others players now want to achieve everything straight away and they can’t do that. When you are playing in the Middle East and you want to play in the top league, it is impossible. From my experience, 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.”
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. 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
Success Away From Home
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.
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, 5o percent 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 as the Latics were eventually relegated despite their FA Cup success.
The surgery was timed in order to allow Al Habsi to be fit for the start of the upcoming season for Wigan, although that had a knock on effect on his availability for Oman at the end of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
But his time on the sidelines, though, allowed Al Habsi to turn his attention to other avenues while back home in Oman, which included his work as co-founder of a non-profit road safety organisation, Safety First.
Following his stint at Wigan, he spent a month on loan at Brighton and Hove Albion before signing permanently in the summer of 2015 for Reading, where he spent two seasons before moving back to Asia through Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, where he won a Saudi Pro League title in 2018, and a Saudi Super Cup months later.
In the summer of 2019, he moved back to England on a free transfer deal to West Bromwich Albion, where he remains till today.
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