When Ali Al-Habsi was first spotted in Oman by European football scouts, he was working as a firefighter at Muscat airport; now a goalkeeper, first at Bolton Wanderers, then Wigan Athletic and currently Reading, he’s become one of the best-loved Arab players in the UK. He was also the first Gulf Arab to play in the Premier League.
First approached by former professional goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach John Burridge, Al-Habsi was surprised at the offer, but went for it regardless. “That was like a shock for me, because when somebody tells you you’re going to play in the Premier League and you don’t even have a professional league in Oman… you take it as something funny,” he says.
Ali found himself in a training camp in Norway, faced with bleak winter weather he’d never before experienced. After a season in Oslo, Al-Habsi signed with Bolton Wanderers and made his way to Greater Manchester, in north-west England. He was thrilled at the chance to play Premier League football – but also comforted by the religious tolerance he experienced in Bolton.
“When I came to sign my first contract with Bolton, they made sure we had Halal meat or chicken, and we had a prayer room in the stadium and on the training ground. In Bolton, you can find more than 30 mosques here,” says Al-Habsi.
After five years often on the bench at Bolton, in 2010, Al-Habsi went to Wigan Athletic on loan to get a regular first team place. Wigan had just suffered two heavy defeats and were worried about their upcoming fixture against Tottenham Hotspur, to whom they had lost 9-1 the previous season. But Al-Habsi kept a clean sheet, on his debut in August 2010, and Wigan beat Spurs 1-0, away at White Hart Lane. He signed full-time for the club and had two great seasons, before suffering a serious shoulder injury in 2013.
“In his first season, he was the [Wigan] Player of the Year. He stayed at a very high level for two years, but the third season was tough for him and all of us. Playing against Everton, he had a bad fall. He injured his shoulder and, at the end of the season, he needed surgery,” says Inaki Bergara, former Wigan goalkeeping coach.
But Al-Habsi recovered in time to play in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Millwall. Al-Habsi’s performance helped Wigan win and to get through to the final against Manchester City. Then-manager Roberto Martinez preferred the Spaniard Joel Robles in goal for the final – but despite being on the bench, Ali was still able to celebrate the dramatic late 1-0 victory.
“It was such an amazing moment for all of us, you know, Ali included. I got the Omani flag and put it around his shoulders. You can see the pride that he has in coming where he’s from. And he has been an ambassador. As I said for us as a football club, but also for the Middle East and for Oman,” says Ed Jones, head of media at Wigan Athletic.
However, Wigan were also relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, becoming the first club to win the FA Cup and suffer relegation in the same season. El-Habsi, however, remained optimistic.
“My dream is to get back to the Premier League. I experienced some beautiful moments there. I’m ready to take up the challenge again. Sometimes, you need to go backwards before you move forwards again,” says El-Habsi. In July 2015, he signed for Reading who are (at the time of writing) well-placed near the top of the Championship – so a return for Ali to the Premier League is not out of the question. Al-Habsi is still also captain of the Oman national team.
French-born Moroccan, Youssef El-Arabi, says he was born to play football – and not unlike All-Habsi, experienced a rapid rise to professional football. Born and raised in Herouville, a suburb of Caen in northern France with a well-established Moroccan community. El-Arabi and his family remained close to their roots and travelled back to Morocco every summer.
“I was born with a ball in my hand. My sister didn’t like football, but I asked her to stand in goal and I’d shoot. Since they first gave me a ball, I’ve never stopped playing,” says El-Arabi.
The young El-Arabi trained at Herouville Sports Club. “When I saw him, it was clear that he was playing with older players. I spotted him and asked his parents to visit the club. That’s how he joined Herouville,” explains Lamine Mohamadou, coach at the sports club.
Soon, the local professional club came knocking, Stade Malherbe in Caen. The young Youssef got a sport-study deal which allowed him to continue his studies at the same time as developing his football skills, encouraging his education by setting minimum grades.
“The first time I saw him, I saw the qualities of a striker straight away. He had spontaneity, enthusiasm and generosity in the way he played,” says Thierry Traore, former coach at Stade Malherbe.
In 2008, El-Arabi was picked to play in a first team match against Lyon, the strongest club in France at the time. “I’ll remember that moment all my life. It’s carved on my memory. You don’t expect it and they call you to warm up, change and go on,” he says.
Two years later, the season began away to Marseille, now French champions. El-Arabi announced himself to the big time with an 86th-minute winner. The next week, at home to Lyon, he scored early in a game which Caen went on to win 3-2.
“He had an amazing debut in summer 2010,” says France Radio’s Didier Charpin. “Ten-to-fifteen minutes into the game, El-Arabi opened the scoring. Two goals in two games.”
El-Arabi’s spirituality and commitment to his roots have played a big part in his career. First, with dual nationality, he opted to play international football for Morocco, rather than France. Then, after 17 goals for Caen in 2010-11, he was offered the chance to sign for Genoa in Italy’s Serie A but, after prayer and reflection, he opted instead for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia.
“It was a decision I don’t regret because I signed with one of the big clubs in Saudi Arabia. It also helped me with my religion. As a Muslim, I was able to go on a short pilgrimage with all my family which is not easy,” says Al-Arabi of his time with the Saudi club.
In 2012, El-Arabi moved to La Liga club Granada in Spain. He made history as the club’s most expensive signing, at five million euros, and helped them stay in the top division. Today, he plays for Lekhwiya in the Qatar Stars League.
“Whether we play football or do another job, the most important thing is good health. And health comes with God’s grace. If you don’t pray and ask God for help, you won’t receive anything as a reward,” says El-Arabi.
Source: Al Jazeera