'A night to remember'
Oman’s finest footballer of all-time, Ali al Habsi, reflects on his career and recollects a cold night in 2007 when he was exceptional against German giants Bayern Munich. Habsi recently called time on his career after 22 glorious years, which saw him win trophies and laurels for different clubs and the sultanate
Two days after Ali al Habsi had called time on his playing career on August 21, German giants Bayern Munich claimed a deserving Champions League title for the sixth time after a 1-0 win against Paris Saint-German in Lisbon, Portugal. One may wonder what is the relation between Bayern's Champions League title and Oman's greatest footballer's retirement.
Well, one needs to travel back to November 8, 2007 to Allianz Arena in Munich to connect the link between Habsi and recentlycrowned European kings.
Habsi, the first goalkeeper from the Gulf region to play in the English Premier League (EPL), had come up with one his best saves in his 22 years of playing career against the very German giants. It was a cold night in the Bavarian capital and Habsi remembers it as it was just the other night.
Playing only his second match with the EPL club, Bolton Wanderers, Habsi was outstanding between the sticks to make the world sit up and notice this gentle giant from Mudhaibi.
In his first exclusive interview to an English newspaper since announcing his retirement, Habsi, with a glint in his eyes and a smile on his face, said: “Yes, I can never forget that night. To be included in the starting XI and playing against Bayern Munich in front of 66,000 fans at the Allianz Arena, it was special. And then, the save against Franck Ribéry, it was one of the best saves.
“When I returned to Bolton, the English media was all praise about the save and even compared it to the save made by legendary Gordon Banks in the 1970 World Cup against Pele. It was such a proud moment to be even associated with one of the greatest goalkeepers.”
Habsi did say that he has made 'plenty of memorable saves' during his career spanning more than two decades and it was very difficult to pick a few. However, he did mention the save he made during Oman's victorious 2009 Gulf Cup campaign when he not only kept a clean sheet during the tournament in Muscat but made a crucial save off Yasser al Qahtani in the last minute of the extra-time during the final against Saudi Arabia.
“It was a save that helped us lift the Gulf Cup and is close to my heart, recollected Habsi. ‘Big Man’ Budgie Habsi's success story is incomplete without John Burridge. The journeyman, who has to his credit more than 770 games in English football, is credited to moulding the career of the Mudhaibi boy. 'Budgie' as he is popularly known, spotted Habsi as a 16 year old boy during a domestic match when he saved a penalty.
Habsi said, “I remember him coming up to me after the match and congratulating me with a handshake and introducing himself as national team goalkeeper coach. Frankly, I had no idea who he was. “But it was John Burridge [Habsi still likes to address him with his full name] who made me believe that I could make it big, go to play in Europe and sign up in English Premier League.
For me, it was like a joke, as back then, a boy from Mudhaibi could only think of watching a Premier League game on a TV set, not playing.” Habsi said, “The training with him was very hard and he really meant business. We were training twice a day, weekends or not, we were on the ground, slogging it out.
“John Burridge drilled into me the dreams of playing in the English Premier League and soon I realised he meant it. He took me to England, we went to Manchester City, United, Bolton and Sunderland. The issue of work permit denied me a chance to get a break in Premier League. Burridge then suggested me to play in Europe and Norway Lyn Oslo was where I signed up, becoming the first Omani to play in Europe in 2003.”
“For me, John Burridge is more than a family. After God, it was he who made me reach what I have achieved in my football career. It was from him I learned self-belief and I can't thank him enough,” said Habsi.
Habsi's switch to Norway was not an easy affair: from the scorching heat of Oman to freezing temperatures in Oslo, staying away from family, and a rigorous training regimen. “It took time for me to make my debut but after few games in the opening season, I had a successful second season, winning the best goalie award and also playing in the Cup final,” Habsi said.
“It was the belief and the dream to reach my goal that kept me going despite challenging conditions and in 2006, I moved to England. I owed to Bolton and despite having offers from other big clubs, I joined Bolton under 'Big Sam' Allardyce.
“With Jussi Jaaskelainen as the No 1 goalie at the club, I knew I would have to wait for long but my approach of learning while on the bench laid the bedrock of my future success,” said Habsi.
“My English debut came in League Cup in September 2007 when I was picked for the game against Fulham. We won 2-1 and John Burridge was there to watch the game and congratulate me, a promise he had made with me long back.”
Following his excellent show against Bayern in November 2007, where Habsi displayed nerves of steel, the Omani got a chance to be in the starting XI of Bolton, as Jaaskelainen got injured. Bolton was fighting relegation with ten games left and Habsi believes that the 'opportunity' gave him the window to showcase his talent and skills. Habsi kept clean sheets in six games and helped Bolton escape relegation, a run that he regards as one of his best campaigns.
Habsi moved to Wigan on loan in 2010 and shone bright as he won the player of the season that paved his move to Wigan in 2011 on a permanent deal for a club record transfer fee for a goalkeeper. Habsi fondly remembers his time with Wigan under Roberto Martinez as he played a crucial role in Wigan's historic FA Cup title win in 2013. Though Habsi did not feature in the final XI in the title clash against Manchester City, he was instrumental in Wigan's semifinal win over Milwall.
“To be the first Arab and Asian (at that time, Australia was not included in the Asian Football Confederation) to lift the world's oldest trophy was a huge, huge moment for me and Oman,” he said. “I went on to play 101 EPL games for Wigan and then moved to Championship side Reading, where I won two successive 'Player of the Year' awards in 2016 and 2017,” he added. Habsi returned to Asia and joined Al Hilal, where he won two more trophies to adorn his overflowing cabinet. After two years with Saudi club, Habsi w e n t back to England, where he joined Championship side West Bromwich Albion but failed to play a game before being released earlier in June. West Brom went on to be promoted to 2020-2021 Premier League but Habsi decided to call it a day.
Gulf Cup title
Among the other treasured memories, Habsi has it is the historic maiden Gulf Cup title for Oman in 2009 in front of thousands of fans at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. He said, “It was an amazing feeling, and for me, the biggest honour was to receive the winner's medal from His Majesty Haitham bin Tarik al Said (then, Minister of Heritage and Culture). “Nothing can match the experience of giving happiness to the country and Oman’s maiden Gulf Cup title win in 2009 saw the whole country erupt in joy.” He added: “There has always been extra pressure while playing for Oman and I loved it. I knew that I had to give 200 per cent and believe me, playing for your country is the single most honour every footballer wishes and aspires while growing up. I am honoured to have played more than 100 games (135 in total) and also captain Oman.”
Habsi said that it was the 'right time' to call time on his playing career. He said, “It is always a tough call after spending years on the pitch but we have to take a call. With my three daughters growing, my family needs me more than anytime now and I thought over and discussed with my family before taking a call. “I know that I still can play for couple of years at the top but I decided to call it a day and be closer to family.”
On the lows of his career, Habsi said only injury layoffs during the 2012-2013 that kept him away for seven months and the injury ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup in UAE were disappointing moments.
No to coaching
About his future plans, Habsi ruled out a career in coaching though he did say that he would like to get the coaching licences in future. “I will prefer to take up a job as an administrator, may be a board member in the Oman Football Association (OFA). It will give me more opportunities to serve the youth of Oman and give back to my country,” he said.
A project that is dear to Habsi has been his Habsi Football Academy (HFA), which started three years back. “I will now have more time to expand the activities of my academy and we will like to take it to different regions in the sultanate. We would scout for talented kids and may be facilitate their journey to Europe,” he said.
On a question if Oman can have another Habsi, he replied: “Yes, why not. It is my dream to see another Habsi. I too came from a small village and achieved my dream. So one has to dream to make it big.”
The legend, who has set a high benchmark for future Omani players, had a clearcut message for the youngsters. “There is no shortcut to hard work. One has to work very hard, follow your dreams as they do come true. To succeed, one needs good support. I was lucky to get strong support from my family, coaches and friends. “One has to have self-belief to achieve their goals and keep pursuing till it is achieved,” said.