Oman international goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi is one of the finest Arab footballers of his generation, and plies his trade in one of the toughest championships in the world: the English Premier League. However, the 29-year-old’s journey to the top has been far from straightforward, and he has had to overcome various obstacles along the road to success.
Al Habsi became the first Omani to play in Europe when he joined Norwegian outfit Lyn in 2003. After three seasons with the club, the towering keeper moved to Bolton Wanderers, becoming the first Omani to play in England’s top flight. He spent last season on loan at Wigan Athletic, where his terrific form led to him being elected the club’s player of the season.
Many Arab players face a culture shock when they arrive on European shores, and Al Habsi is often asked about the difficulties he has faced in adapting to his new surroundings. FIFA.com caught up with him to discuss the issue of racism and the various methods for combating problem. He also gave an insight into the difficulties he has encountered in Europe so far.
FIFA.com: Ali, racism is a growing problem in many countries, and Arab players are often targets for abuse. What has been your experience?
Ali Al Habsi: Personally, I’ve never faced that kind of problem. But I believe that racism is a loathsome act. My religion, Islam, forbids discrimination in all of its forms, whether based on belief, gender, ethnic origin or skin colour.
Have you witnessed any racist acts over the course of your career?
To be completely honest, I’ve always been made to feel very welcome, both in Bolton and Wigan. The thing I’ve appreciated most has been the respect people have shown for my religion. In my seven years playing in Europe, I’ve never had any problems - quite the opposite in fact. The fans of the clubs I’ve played for have always shown respect towards their players and any differences they might have.
Have you ever had any difficulties practising your religion in Europe, particularly during the month of Ramadan?
No, I’ve never had any problems with that. It’s something that people really respect. To give an example, at Bolton they set up a special area for prayer. I have a lot of respect for that kind of gesture. I’ve given lots of interviews - both in Norway and England - in which a great deal of the focus has been on my religious practices. Once, I even had my photo taken inside a mosque.
Some Arab players have encountered racism in English football stadiums. What’s your view on this?
I couldn’t give you any details personally, as I’ve never been a victim of that kind of thing. But I find it shameful that some supporters behave in that way, especially when the players are giving everything on the pitch and doing their best to please the crowd.
What can the world of football do to combat the problem?
There are several things we can do to fight this disease. But I think the most important thing is to raise awareness through the media, because the media can play a key role. We could also arrange friendly matches involving star players, and use them to promote the anti-racism theme. The players themselves could also go into schools to talk to children about the problem and make them aware of it at the youngest age possible.
How were your early days in Europe and your first outings in the Norwegian league?
The first few years are always the hardest, and that goes for all players. But I was able to adapt to the country’s climate and culture very quickly. It wasn’t easy, but I managed.
Many Arab footballers, particularly those from Asian countries, find it hard to establish themselves in European leagues. Why do you think that is?
I think that with everything, patience is a key factor. I have no doubt that these players struggle to adapt to new climates and cultures when they move abroad. But when you’re a professional, you have to be patient. I’ve had seasons where I’ve spent a lot of time on the bench, but it’s never affected me.
What advice would you give to players thinking of moving to Europe?
There’s a lot of advice I could give, especially for those who are starting out. The most important thing is to work hard and be very patient. It takes a great deal of effort and persistence to play professional football in Europe. You have to stay focused on your goal and move towards it one step at a time.