By CHRIS WHEELER
A keen interest in camel racing is not one you can easily pursue around Wigan in winter, but at least Ali Al-Habsi has been able to put his knowledge of fire fighting to good use in English football.
Few goalkeepers are called upon to rescue their team quite as frequently as Al-Habsi, whether it was bailing out his old club Bolton or answering the call of duty on a regular basis for Wigan. He came up with an outstanding penalty save in Wednesday’s draw against Liverpool and will doubtless need further heroics at Manchester United on Boxing Day.
That the 29-year-old does it with an easy smile and a humble nature is even more admirable considering he has not only kept goal at the wrong end of the table throughout his career in England, but he also carries the responsibility of being the only player from the Persian Gulf in the Barclays Premier League at a time of huge Arab interest in football.
It has been a fascinating journey for Al-Habsi; from an upbringing in the deserts of Oman and his job as an airport fireman, to the freezing climes of Norway and eventually east Lancashire.
As the dark clouds gather over Wigan’s training ground, he is aware of the expectation from a distant part of the world where he enjoys almost iconic status.
‘Yes, of course, it’s a huge pressure,’ says Al-Habsi. ‘It’s not just Oman. It’s Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and all the Arab countries. They all follow me every game I play. You can’t believe how much they love Wigan and the Premier League.
‘When you see Manchester City with Sheik Mansour, Abu Dhabi and Etihad, or Qatar getting the World Cup and buying Paris Saint-Germain, football is more interesting than before. To be from Oman or the Middle East and play in Europe is massive, but I really enjoy it.
‘It’s harder now because everybody believes in you. You are the face for them.’
Al-Habsi didn’t plan for a career in Europe, or to be a goalkeeper for that matter. He was a striker until the age of 16 when his brother, Abdulaziz, coach of their hometown team in Al-Mudhaibi, advised him to change position.
Four more of Al-Habsi’s nine brothers - his father Abdullah and mother Aza also have six daughters - played for the team in Oman’s Third Division, although the absence of grass meant they trained on sand and played home games in a neighbouring town.
Indeed, Al-Mudhaibi, 75 miles from the capital Muscat, is famous for its Al Fath camel racing track. A third of the 56,000 population are said to work in the sport.
‘I love that village,’ says Al-Habsi. ‘It’s the most famous place in Oman for camel racing. All my friends train and ride camels. I’ve had a try - not going fast, just walking.
‘When I go home I love to go there all the time to watch how they train and feed them.’
Even though he was only playing for Al-Mudhaibi in the lower leagues, Al-Habsi earned a call-up to the Under 17 national team. His career changed from the moment John Burridge, the much-travelled veteran English goalkeeper and coach who was working with Oman’s senior squad, saw him save a penalty in a friendly.
‘He thought I could make it in England,’ recalls Al-Habsi. ‘To be honest I just laughed. No player from the Middle East had been given a trial or played in Europe. He was telling me I could play in the Premier League.’
Burridge is mentioned in reverential tones. On the coach’s advice, Al-Habsi moved to Muscat, where he got a job as a fireman at Seeb Airport and split his shifts around training with his mentor, who also helped him to learn English. In summer, Al-Habsi would travel 16 miles by bus to start sessions at 5am before the heat hit 50 degrees.
‘It was hard but when someone believes in you, you do everything,’ says Al-Habsi. ‘John Burridge said he wasn’t going to leave me until he’d put me in the Premier League. When I was 18 he brought me to England. I trained with Bolton and had a trial with Man United.
‘He took a picture of me at Old Trafford. He said, “It’s to remind you, Ali. You will play here and you will be a star”. When I played there for Bolton, I got man-of-the-match and John was there. It was brilliant.’
Burridge paid for the trip, such was his belief in Al-Habsi. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted the youngster, as did Kevin Keegan at Manchester City and Sam Allardyce at Bolton, but work-permit problems meant that he headed for a three-year stint with Lyn Oslo instead.
‘When I got to Norway there was snow everywhere and it was minus 15. In the first week of training we were outside on the artificial grass. Afterwards I sat there looking at my frozen hands and feet.
‘But when you have a dream, you forget everything around you. I promised my family that I would stay there and work hard.’
Al-Habsi got his move to the Premier League with Bolton in 2006 after a transfer to City had fallen through 12 months earlier.
He struggled to displace Jussi Jaaskelainen despite an impressive stint at the end of the 2007-08 campaign that helped keep Bolton in the top flight. He had more luck taking Chris Kirkland’s place when he moved to Wigan on loan last season, winning the club’s player-of- the-year award.
The deal, which turned into a £3million transfer in the summer, also meant he did not have to uproot his wife, Basma, and their four-year-old daughter Renaad.
A sunny disposition has served him well at Wigan. After avoiding relegation on the final day of last season, Roberto Martinez’s men are locked in another survival battle. Al-Habsi’s heroics on Wednesday night earned a draw just four days after Chelsea had also been held.
It gets no easier with Old Trafford next up. Much has changed in Al-Habsi’s life in the 12 years since that photo was taken. ‘I’m looking forward to it,’ he says. ‘I’m so happy and loving my club.’