Omani international goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi has made a memorable start to his career with English Premier League club Wigan Athletic. Drafted into the starting XI against Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight ago, he had a big hand in the Latics’ first win of the season, which came after two heavy defeats had left them bottom of the table.
The first Omani footballer to play in Europe and the first Arab custodian to run out in the English top flight, Al-Habsi spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his career in Europe, that impressive Wigan debut and his future goals.
Al-Habsi began the new season on the bench, looking on as team-mate Chris Kirkland fished the ball out of the net ten times in the course of two humiliating home defeats to new boys Blackpool and defending champions Chelsea.
Days later the 28-year-old took to the field against Hartlepool in the English League Cup, putting in a fine performance and hanging on to the gloves for the trip to White Hart Lane after Kirkland picked up an injury. The deputy did not disappoint, following up his solid midweek showing with another superb display as Roberto Martinez’s men collected a welcome 1-0 win.
“I was given a starting place and I took my chance,” he says of his stunning show against Spurs. “I’d been waiting for an opportunity like that for a long time and I did what needed to be done. I had a great game and kept a clean sheet to go with the one against Hartlepool. What also counts is that the team played well and we got the three points.”
Al-Habsi is no stranger to English football, having joined Wigan in July on loan from Bolton Wanderers, where he had failed to make a single start following his arrival at the Reebok Stadium in 2006.
“I didn’t get a look-in at Bolton because Jussi Jaaskelainen is such a great keeper,” he explains. “But when all’s said and done I did well there. That’s why they kept on renewing my contract for four years. They were pleased with my work but when the chance to join Wigan came up I didn’t hesitate for a minute. It’s an opportunity for me to make my name and develop my game, and I’m pleased with my performances so far.”
Happy to play the pioneer for his country, the Latics No1 is thoroughly enjoying the experience.
“It’s something I feel very proud of, both on a personal level and as an Omani,” he says. “Along with Australia’s Mark Schwarzer I’m one of only two keepers from the Asia-Pacific area to play in the Premier League. I’ve learned a lot in my time with FC Lyn Oslo, then Bolton and now here at Wigan. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve.”
“I played well against Tottenham but you can’t really draw any conclusions from just one match,” he adds, sounding a note of caution. “That’s why I want to keep developing with each game, especially in a league that’s as tough as the English Premier, which is the best in the world in my view.”
Formerly with Omani club Al Nasr, the Latics keeper did not have the easiest of introductions to European football, struggling to make his mark in Norway with Lyn Oslo, a spell he describes as the toughest of his career to date.
“I’ve had problems to deal with throughout my career, but my time in Norway was definitely the most difficult for me,” he recalls. “I came out of it alright though. I played quite a few games and got my fair share of recognition too, including an award as the best keeper in the Norwegian league. We finished third in the championship and reached the Norwegian Cup final too.
“Coming to England has been totally different in every way,” he continues. “The way of life, the style of football, the training and all these big stars: it’s a big change. I managed to find my place at Bolton, though, and I showed I could play in the league and the Europa League.”
So what are his objectives with Wigan? “I want to make a mark here and do my very best, and so far so good. The coach put his faith in me for the last game and I hope to keep on getting good results and impress the
directors, the players and the fans.”