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On the ball: Happy Birthday Ali Al Habsi
December 27, 2016 | 8:00 PM
by Gautam Bhargav Viswanathan
Oman’s legendary goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi.
 
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The 30th of December is a special occasion that many of us may not know of in Oman. No it’s not New Year’s Eve eve, to paraphrase Phoebe Buffay from Friends.



Next Friday, Oman’s legendary goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi will turn 35. It’s hard to put an age to him, though, isn’t it? It’s like he’s been around forever. We all have fond memories of Habsi: His heroics at the 2009 Gulf Cup of Nations inside a packed Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. Every save he made, every attempt to thwart his opponents was met by a heady roar that shook the dust from the rafters.

And in the end, it was his valiant efforts that saw Oman lift their first ever Gulf Cup, against mighty Saudi Arabia, and this son of Oman lifted the fruits of his dedication and labour, people all around the arena responded with a reverberating roar of triumph that shook the stadium to its very foundations.

Footballers today are not just players, but they are role models, and for all of us who live in Oman, there are few better examples to follow than the legendary Al Habsi. His story is a true testament to hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice ultimately reaping rich rewards.


It is often difficult to forget that it’s Al Habsi, and not the UAE’s Ismael Mattar or Saudi Arabia’s Sami Al Jaber, who became the first Arab from the Middle East to play in Europe. Habsi’s beginnings are all too modest, once again emphasising football’s working-class origins. While he now has a regimented training schedule and requires an iron discipline, these characteristics were developed while pulling shifts as a fireman, and filling in as an amateur goalkeeper in Oman.

He was the first Middle Easterner to play in Europe, swapping the sultry, sunny climes of Oman for cold, chilly Norway. Many a young athlete would’ve wavered in the face of such bleak, bitingly bitter weather, but Ali knew he needed to run the icy gauntlets of his new club FC Lyn Oslo, if he was to make it as a professional. Ali has never looked back, and his career has progressed in leaps and bounds.

On the 16th of March, 2008, more than two years after he’d signed for Bolton Wanderers, Ali Al Habsi made his Premier League debut in a 1-0 defeat against Wigan Athletic. Although the Northerners may have lost that game, it was a moment of pride for all of us in Oman.

Ali Al Habsi became the first Omani – and by extension, the first player from the Middle East – to play in the world’s most competitive league. It is a record that stands proudly to this day. Ali stands guard over a line in the sand he himself drew: A true testament to what it takes to play among the best of the best, and shows just how few actually have the longevity to withstand the Premier League.

The 11th of May is one that few Omanis will forget: As Wigan Athletic beat their much-vaunted opponents Manchester City to win the FA Cup for the first time in their history, Ali had written himself into the record books in more ways than one. As he climbed up the hallowed steps of the Wembley Stadium, with the red, white and green flag of his nation draped around his shoulders, Ali Al Habsi became the first Omani to lift England’s famous old FA Cup with his club.The same club against which he’d made his debut five years earlier.

Ali had not just withstood the Premier League: He’d beaten the best as well. It is a classic underdog story, one that has strong undercurrents of courage, integrity, and valour in the face of superior opposition, making the tale that transpired on that day one which will live even longer in our memories.

Like most fairytale sports careers, though, Ali is still awaiting his ‘happily ever after’. A few days after that FA Cup triumph, his Wigan Athletic team were doomed to relegation to the second tier of English football.

But while most people would’ve chafed with indignation at this fate, Ali took it in his stride and realised this was a test of his character. A test he has brilliantly responded to. His new team, Reading FC, lie in third in the Championship, and are mounting an assault on a return to the Premier League. A return that cannot come soon enough for English football’s only Omani. Come the 2017-18 EPL season, be on the lookout for the goalkeeper with the affable grin, razor sharp reflexes, and steely determination.

Be on the lookout for Ali Al Habsi.

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