Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi explains what it’s like to be a Middle East footballer playing in the biggest league on earth
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 has not traditionally brought a lot 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 find out.
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. Moving to a fantastic side like Wigan 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.
Is your loan part of a bigger overall strategy? Obviously, with the loan. I have the mindset of a Wigan player now. But I am grateful to Owen Coyle for giving me the opportunity. 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 would be good for me, and that I would come back to Bolton a stronger asset after a year of first team experience.
What’s going on with Oman 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 we are one of the best teams in Asia. We’re the current champions of the Gulf Cup, so it is a shame that the team won’t be competing in January. We want to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Do you think that’s possible? It’s going to take a lot of hard work by the Oman Football Association (OFA). The current national team started out together when we were 17 and 18 – we’ve been on this journey together, and in my opinion we need to spend more time and money on developing young players. Earlier this year the OFA launched the Oman Football Academy, which is a huge step forward. 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.
What do you think of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid? Is it feasible? As a Gulf player, I’m 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 in the Gulf, and I think the Qatar bid is showcasing that to the world. I hope the bid is successful. If it is, the Qataris would definitely stage a spectacular World Cup, one to remember.
Do you miss being away from the Middle East? We’re guessing it’s a lot different 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.
The Premier League can be seen on Abu Dhabi TV. More info in Sports TV listings and at www.premierleague.com
The city’s premier spots to watch the league
All of these pubs will be open for daytime matches during Ramadan
Barasti – Le Méridien Mina Seyahi This popular spot will be showing the games in their indoor bar and possibly at the poolside area during the evenings. During Ramadan they will be open during the day to show the earlier games, however they won’t be serving tipple. (04 399 3333)
Champions – JW Marriot The cozy sports bar will be open for all games, perfect for those working on the Deira end of town. (04 262 4444)
Loca – Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Spa Enjoy the best guacamole in town while supporting your team. Oh, and there’s also two free drinks for lads on Saturdays after 10pm. (04 346 1111)