Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi is the only Gulf player earning his crust in England’s Premier League
Brazil, it has to be said, produce a lot of good footballers. Spain, Holland and Germany – as noted by the recent World Cup – also have a lot of homegrown talent. The Middle East, until recently, has not brought a great deal to the party, which makes Ali Al Habsi’s arrival in the British Premier League all the more special. After signing with Bolton Wanderers in 2006, he starts the new season on loan to Wigan Athletic, hoping to kickstart a career so far spent on the benches.
What are you looking forward to most about the new Premier League season? Well, this season is a little special for me, as I am on loan to Wigan. I have a first team place, which is an excellent feeling going in to the start of a new season. Moving to Wigan, which is a fantastic and ambitious side, as number one goalkeeper, is a great opportunity to gain some first team experience – in my four years at Bolton, I’ve only had one season playing in the first team. Wigan is just 15 minutes away from Bolton too, so I don’t have to change base. It’s worked out really well for me.
Did you sympathise at all with England goalkeeper Robert Green’s howler in the World Cup match against USA? I actually felt quite sorry for Green. These mistakes happen as a goalkeeper; we all lose concentration and focus momentarily. Sometimes these incidents happen during training, and sometimes they happen during club matches. For it to happen to Rob Green in England’s first match of the World Cup was really unlucky – and it cost him his place in the England squad for the remainder of the competition. But it happened to Oliver Kahn, the German goalkeeper in the 2002 World Cup as well. He can recover from this.
What’s going on with the Omani team at the moment? You missed out on the upcoming Asian Cup in Qatar… Oman narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Asian Cup, which I was very upset about as I definitely feel that Oman is one of the best teams in Asia. We are the current champions of the Gulf Cup, so it is a shame that the team won’t be competing in January. I am sure that Qatar will play an excellent host to the competition, but to be honest, I am looking forward to my work with the Oman national team – we want to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Do you think that’s doable? Qualifying for the next World Cup is a priority for us. But it is going to take a lot of hard work. The current national team all started out together when we were 17 and 18 – we have been on this journey together, and in my opinion, we need to spend more time and money on developing the youth players of Oman. Earlier this year the OFA launched the Oman Football Academy, which is a huge step forward for Omani football. The chairman of the English Premier League, Sir Dave Richards, was in Oman earlier this year to participate in a workshop on professionalizing the game. Omani football is progressing, and improving, no doubt. I hope that we are able to qualify for the next World Cup, and the next Asian Cup.
What do you think of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid? Is it feasible? As a Gulf player, I am very impressed by the efforts shown by Qatar. I see the 2022 bid as a huge opportunity for the Gulf region – not just for Qatar – especially in terms of tourism. There is definitely a passion for the game here in the Gulf, and I think the Qatar bid is showcasing that to the world. I hope that the bid is successful.
Are there many young players coming up through the ranks in Oman? There are a lot of talented young players with a lot of potential playing at club level in Oman. The OFA are investing in them through different training programmes. Our young players need patience. They need to think professionally; but yes, there are definitely young names with real potential in Oman right now.
Do you miss being away from the Middle East? We’re guessing it’s considerably different here to Bolton or Wigan… Yes, I miss Muscat. I miss Oman in general. When I am home I like to spend time in mountain villages like Misfah Al Abreyeen – that, to me, is the true Oman. The scenery, the greenery… It’s beautiful, very cool and very quiet; a perfect retreat.
You’ve been to the UK, but have any of your team-mates been over here? Funnily enough, several of my colleagues at Bolton Wanderers have been to the Middle East now. The chairman, Phil Gartside, has been to Oman, and the general secretary of the club has holidayed here too. One of the club’s former managers has also been over for a break, and so has my goalkeeping coach with his family. I love Oman – I recommend it to everybody. I have always advised my colleagues to check out Qurum Beach in the evenings, and they are taken away by the number of Omanis playing football on the beach. Oman has an incredible passion for football and it’s nice for the people at Bolton, who share that passion, to witness it. The new Premier League season begins on August 14. Wigan v Blackpool and Bolton v Fulham are among the first games. Further schedules at www.premierleague.com.
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