Ali Al Habsi – an inspiration for all

Story – Gautam Viswanathan

When you’re faced with a challenge that requires determination and perseverance, don’t say ‘it’s too difficult’. Instead, give it your best shot, and you might find more success than you ever imagined possible.

So many people who are today household names in their fields, and are respected the world over, were faced with the tough choice of either giving up, or ploughing forward when faced with hurdles put in place to question their character.

Legendary Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi recently announced his retirement from football. In the aftermath of his announcement, Ali received plenty of praise from fellow sportspersons who not just about his achievements on the pitch, but his dedication, perseverance, hard work, and the legacy he leaves for the next generation of Arab footballers.

“After having had the honour for many years to represent a number of clubs both at home and abroad, today, I announce the end of my career as a football player,” said Ali, on August 21, 2020. “At this time, I would like to offer my sincere thanks and gratitude to everyone who has supported me throughout my career, and would like to confirm my continued service to my country in other capacities.”

The first Arab from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to play in the English Premier League, if not in Europe, Ali’s career spanned 22 years across nine clubs in four countries, having won 15 team and individual honours. Al Habsi played for a total of six English clubs: Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic, Reading, Brighton and Hove Albion, and West Bromwich, in addition to two seasons at Saudi side Al Hilal.

There are a number of firsts in Ali Al Habsi’s trophy cabinet: he is the first Gulf Arab – and by extension – the first Omani, to win the prestigious FA Cup, while he was also a crucial member of the Oman team that won the country’s first ever Arab Gulf Cup of Nations in 2009, beating Saudi Arabia 6-5 on penalties.

Many of the footballers we see splashed on our screens and dominating the headlines do live lives of opulence and luxury, but few of them are born that way: a lot of those who play the beautiful game may drive flashy cars, travel on private jets and live in mansions we can only dream of owning, but they realise that their football skills are a gift given to them that few others have, which help them and their families escape the hard lives they lead.

While Cristiano Ronaldo’s father worked as a gardener, and his mom was hired as a cook, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dad pulled shifts as a night watchman and his mum was employed as a cleaner, and Zinedine Zidane’s father didn’t even have a pair of shoes to wear when he left Algeria with his family in search of a better life in France, Ali Al Habsi initially worked as a fireman, while he was still a young goalkeeper.

Ali’s initial years were spent playing for hometown club Al Mudhaibi, which is still active in the Oman Professional League – the country’s top flight football division – before a year with Al Nasr in the Dhofar.

He wasn’t to spend long on these shores, though. Al Habsi’s talent was discovered by veteran English goalkeeper John Burridge. Known to people in the Middle East for his views as a TV pundit, ‘Budgie’ enjoyed a professional career lasting all the way from 1969 to 1997, playing for a number of teams such as Sheffield United, Derby County, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Queen’s Park Rangers, before famously offering his services to any club that would have him, even if it were for short emergency loan spells.

To date the oldest person to play a Premier League game – he turned out for Manchester City at the age of 43 – Burridge was a member of Oman’s coaching staff in 2001, when he discovered Al Habsi’s skill in goal. He knew straight away that the lanky Omani, who stood at six foot four inches, had the temperament and the ability to succeed in Europe. To do so, though, would also need him to develop the determination and the will to persevere when things did not go his way.

That would require him to swap the hot and humid conditions of Oman for the icy, frigid conditions of Norway. Before Ali’s time at Bolton Wanderers made him a name known to many, he spent three years at FC Lyn Oslo, where he went about familiarising himself with the European style of play, one that is markedly different from the way football is played in the Middle East.

Someone with Ali’s talent would’ve been more than capable of enjoying a livelihood playing in the Gulf, but he knew what it took to succeed on the world’s stage, and it was his time in Scandinavia that shaped him for the ups and downs he was to face. It took Ali Al Habsi eight years of patience and hard work from the time he made his debut for Al Mudhaibi in 1998, to sign for the then Premier League side Bolton Wanderers in January of 2007, and a further nine months before he was finally given the chance to prove himself on his League Cup debut, a 2-1 extra time victory over Fulham in September that year.

Lengthy amounts of time spent waiting on a substitute’s bench or hanging around with the reserves are a part of a goalkeeper’s life that former Morocco and Leicester City man Chuck Martini knows only too well. Now the head of the Muscat Football Academy in Oman, Martini received his pro football education under Leicester City boss Martin O’Neill.

“He’s had a fantastic career: he is the leader among Arab footballers, given the standards he’s made for himself and the standards he’s set for the rest of the Gulf,” said Martini, who also played for Tottenham Hotspur. “He is an inspiration for kids, especially in Oman, but in the Arab world as well. Among the population here, he is a true champion and a fantastic ambassador for the Gulf and the Asian region. He’s also a great ambassador for his country, and now for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and fittingly so.

“I have had the opportunity of meeting him a couple of times, and he is a great man,” he added. “All the youngsters see him as a great role model. I have about four or five goalkeepers in that category that actually draw inspiration from Ali Al Habsi…I hope God makes their dreams come true. For them, he has been an example and a role model, and they want to reach the heights that he has. I cannot speak highly enough of him. He is an honourable gentleman, and does a great amount of work for his country.”

Ali’s time at Bolton taught him the value of perseverance and patience. In search of more playing time Ali was sent on loan to Wigan for the 2010-11 season, where he played 40 games in all competitions. His efforts between the sticks saw him named Wigan’s Player of the Season. Ali Al Habsi was by this time already a household name in Oman. Now, he was steadily becoming one in England as well.

Throughout his five years at Bolton, Ali never complained, but got on with honing and improving his game. In typical Omani fashion, he seldom lost his nerve, and continued to remain modest and humble, despite the fame he was now receiving. Many of Ali’s former teammates have wished him well on what lies ahead for him, and if there’s one thing all their messages have in common, it’s that he is a genuinely nice guy.

“Just want to wish you my brother all the best in the future after a fantastic footballing career,” said defender Michael Hector, who played alongside Ali at Wigan. “What a role model you have been, on and off the pitch, for me and other players.”

Former French international striker Bafetimbi Gomis, who was his teammate at Al Hilal, chimed in with, “It was an honour to play next to you on the pitch and was a great experience as well. I wish you the best of luck for the new chapter of your life, my brother.”

His fellow Wigan-era goalkeeper Mike Pollitt called him “one of the nicest guys I have met in football,” and it is quite clear Ali’s good nature rubbed off on Alex Fernandez as well. The Spaniard, who spent a single season on loan at Reading, said of Habsi, “As a goalkeeper, you were very, very good, but as a person you are an excellent friend, good luck in your new adventure, you have earned the affection and respect of all.”

Yes, Ali Al Habsi may not have scaled the heady heights of other goalkeeping contemporaries of his time, such as Dutchman Edwin van der Sar, Germany’s Oliver Kahn, or Italian ace Gianluigi Buffon, but what he has done is show aspiring footballers in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East that it is indeed possible to forge a successful career in Europe.

Many Arab footballers have hailed him for the inspiration he has shown in others. Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah is easily among the best players in world football right now, but he is more the exception than the rule.

Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea, having represented his country 178 times, holds the record for the most number of appearances for a goalkeeper, has played at four FIFA World Cups, and was named Asia’s Goalkeeper of the Century in 1999. But he too has highlighted Ali’s professionalism as an example for others to follow.

“My dear friend and brother Ali Al Habsi has completed and fulfilled a distinguished journey between the goalposts,” he said. “You were great, and helped set an example of professional and honourable conduct, both internationally and in the Gulf. You were the best ambassador for us players, with your character and your morals. Thank you!”

Egypt international centre-back Ahmed Hegazi, who shared the dressing room with Al Habsi while he was at West Bromwich Albion, said. “Congratulations on your great achievements as a great goalkeeper. I was honoured to know you and play with you. I wish you good luck and success.”

His fellow Arab African, Tunisian Radhi Jaidi, Ali’s teammate at Bolton, added, “It was an honour to play alongside you and get to know you as a person, my brother Ali Al Habsi. I wish you good luck in the future.”

Praise has naturally come to him from another of Oman’s stalwarts as well: defensive midfielder Ahmed Mubarak Al Mahajiri, lovingly known as ‘Kano’, who lifted his country’s first Gulf Cup alongside Al Habsi, was also effusive in his praise. “You have fulfilled the responsibilities of being a role model, have great knowledge, and a professional mind set. All Omanis and Arabs thank you, for what you have achieved.”

Yes, the plaudits Ali has received are many, and they will continue to come in the weeks and months that follow. That 18 of his 22 years as a professional were spent in Europe speak volumes of his consistency, his willingness to work hard, and the patience he had to wait for his chance to shine. Ali has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates the world over, and has won a few trophies along the way, but his most important achievement is the legacy he is leaving for all Arabs, and indeed, anyone with a dream: that with a little bit of application, a whole lot of hard work, and the passion to succeed, it is indeed possible to be the best.

For this truly amazing life lesson, and everything else, shukran jazeelan. Thank you, Ali Al Habsi – [email protected]