This article featured originally on Tale of Two Halves back in May 2018.
As football fans, we will witness certain players from some of the smaller footballing nations become huge stars within their own country and cult players with European clubs. These players, through their raw talent, dedication and chunk of luck are able to make it to the top of European’s elite level and put their country’s names on the map. In more recent times, with social media and technology increasingly involved in the modern game, it is made it easier than ever to show support for a player who is making strides as a national treasure when they feature in some of the biggest competitions in the sport, including the FA Cup.
One player, from the Persian Gulf country of Oman who was thankfully discovered by the scouting eye of former goalkeeper John ‘Budgie’ Burridge, certainly left an authentic heritage whilst making history during his time in England. A key player for Wigan Athletic suddenly changed through injury and the form of a backup stopper, meaning weeks without playing a league game. But with so many family, friends and a nation watching in anticipation, his ultimate dream of featuring and winning the FA Cup could only be experienced from the bench.
Ali Abdullah Harib Al-Habsi, commonly known as Ali Al-Habsi, started out playing for his local side Al-Mudhaibi during his amateur career. He was playing whilst being trained to become a fireman, a career path he admittedly would have continued to pursue had football not worked out. As a kid, Al-Habsi remembers the only game they could watch on TV was the FA Cup final, the oldest Cup competition in football. Like any other kid, he could dream, but there was only ever going to be a minuscule chance of making it as a footballer from Oman.
A transfer to join Manchester City was on the cards however but fell through with a failed visa in 2003 stopping him join the club who he was set to face off against a decade later. That setback did not stop him however as his religious values meant that his patience did pay off with a move secured to Europe by joining Norwegian side Lyn Oslo who played in the top division.
Three seasons in the Scandinavian country was a challenge and culture shock for the goalkeeper, but Al-Habsi’s success caught the attention of Sam Allardyce and he signed for Bolton Wanderers in 2006. Al-Habsi was in between the posts during Bolton’s European games against none other than Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade and Sporting Lisbon. Unfortunately, the keeper never got a run of games in the following two seasons and a struggling Wigan Athletic came calling and signed him on loan during the 2010-11 season.
In dramatic style, the Latics stayed in the Premier League with Al-Habsi claiming the club’s Player of the Season award, signing on a permanent deal that summer. Finally becoming a Premier League regular, Al-Habsi’s great form from the previous season flowed into the following season with his strong penalty saving making him a stand-out and transfer target for Liverpool and Arsenal. However, Wigan’s poor league form saw them floating in and out of the relegation places and they had the cup games to come in the calendar year.
Manager Roberto Martinez opted to use Al-Habsi only once during Wigan’s journey to the semi-final stage, with backup Mike Pollitt and loanee Joel Robles from Atletico Madrid manning the posts in impressive away victory ties over Huddersfield and Everton. But with the Semi-Final ties being played at Wembley, Al-Habsi made history as he was named to start in Wigan’s line-up against Millwall. His side won 2-0 thanks to goals from Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman, and the Omani keeper was delighted to have kept a clean sheet and helped his side to the final of an FA Cup.
Just a decade after his life-changing move away from his home nation to Norway, Al-Habsi was just one step away from achieving a life-long dream and ambition that he had worked so hard for. However, the level of uncertainty regarding whether he could make this dream possible was very much in the air following the Semi-Final win and weeks leading up to the big day. Martinez continued to play Robles in goal for Wigan, who were at the business end of the season and desperate for points, and Al-Habsi simply could not regain his number one spot.
In the build-up to the final, a huge media plea sparked over Al-Habsi’s story, in particular regarding the number of tickets he had to get for his family, friends and other connections back in Oman from when he was working as a fireman. He admitted he had to get nearly 100 tickets at Wembley in the Wigan end. As humble as the goalkeeper is, through his professionalism and religious values, even he sent his plea in pre-match interviews to be played.
“Of course it’s up to the manager, but there will be a lot of people who will be very disappointed if I don’t play — including me, of course.”
What made the tie even more appealing in the Gulf was the face-off between Al-Habsi and Oman with Manchester City and their following in the United Arab Emirates due to their mega-rich owner Sheikh Mansour in an underdog versus heavyweight battle. Al-Habsi’s relationship with the competition was so strong that when he took his mother to the 2010 Final between Chelsea and Portsmouth, he asked her to pray for him to make an appearance at the Cup Final one day. But the hopes and prayers from relatives and fans did not come to fruition as Martinez selected Robles to start in the Wigan net.
A disappointment all around with all those travelling far and wide wanting to witness the Omani stopper make history for not just his club but his country also. The match saw Wigan equal their star-studded opponents throughout the game, with chances falling to Man of the Match McManaman and Maloney. However late drama in the game saw Pablo Zabaleta sent off after taking down McManaman who was heading clear on goal. With just two minutes of regular time remaining, unlikely hero Ben Watson headed home from a Maloney corner to secure a 1-0 shock win for the Latics.
Joyous scenes on the pitch followed the full-time whistle as Wigan’s captains Emmerson Boyce and Gary Caldwell both lifted the trophy. Al Habsi was not left out of the celebrations, however, and thanks to the Head of Media Relations at the club, the Omani keeper got to wave his nation’s flag in pride and delight around the pitch in front of the thousands of viewers and fans in attendance. Al-Habsi had become an ambassador for Muslim players and players from the Gulf region, and his contribution and appearance after the match saw the busloads of Middle Eastern fans come together with fellow Wigan Athletic supporters in joint celebration.
Having gone on to play for Brighton & Hove Albion on loan before joining Reading, Al-Habsi made a Wembley appearance in a heartbreak play-off final before joining Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal, his current club. Now aged 36, he will be looking to seek a new career after his playing career is finished. Already running a non-profit road safety organisation, maybe he will take on a role similar to John Burridge and inspire the next generation of Oman and fellow Persian players with moves to European clubs to achieve their dreams.