We talk to Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi to find out what it’s like to be a footballer from the Middle East
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 extraordinary. After signing with Bolton Wanderers in 2006, he starts the new season on loan to Wigan Athletic. A change of pace for the Omani goalkeeper? We found out.
What have you been up to this summer? This summer has been very special to me, as it was the first time since 2006 I have been able to spend four uninterrupted weeks at home in Oman with my family and friends. In recent years my commitments with the national team took up a lot of time during the summer between seasons, so I have really made the most of being back this year.
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.
Bet you enjoyed the World Cup. Did you sympathise at all with England goalkeeper Robert Green’s howler in the group 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.
Is your loan to Wigan part of a bigger strategy? Bolton coach Owen Coyle has been quoted in the press as saying he wants players ‘with flair’ for the new season. Any thoughts? Obviously, with the loan to Wigan, I have the mindset of a Wigan player now. But I am grateful to Owen Coyle for him giving me the opportunity to go to Wigan on loan. I spoke to him about how I needed to play; about how I wanted regular games, which I wasn’t getting at Bolton Wanderers, and he agreed that the season-long loan to Wigan would be good for me, and I will come back to Bolton a stronger asset for the year of first team experience I will gain there.
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 we are 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 by the Oman Football Association (OFA). 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 current board of directors, chaired by Sayyid Khalid, has a vision for football in Oman – they are attracting investment in the game, holding seminars for match officials and so on. The chairman of the English Premier League, Sir Dave Richards, was in Oman earlier this year to participate in a workshop on professionalising 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. We are ambitious and committed, and I hope people are keeping their eyes on Omani football for this reason, because it is changing.
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. I feel that if it is, the Qataris would definitely stage a spectacular World Cup to remember.
Are there many young players coming up through the ranks in Oman? Do you think any can follow in your footsteps to the English Premier League? 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 with FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation). Our young players need patience. They need to think professionally, but yes, there are definitely names with potential in Oman right now.
Do you miss being away from the Middle East? We’re guessing it’s a lot 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. There are a few restaurants I miss too, and Arabic food in general.
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 there 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, and then they return to the UK and tell their friends and families about it. 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 there as the sun sets. 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. More info at www.premierleague.com
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