On August 21, 2020, when Oman’s legendary football player Ali Al Habsi announced with this message the end of his 22 years of illustrious career, thousands of people said in one voice: “The game of football will never be the same again in Oman.” An image of inspiration, an idol of reverence and a man of honour, Al Habsi represented nine clubs in four countries which made him the greatest and only player from the GCC to have a successful career in Europe.
Few would have predicted when he started his career at his hometown club of Al Mudhaibi as a 17-year-old that one day he would cross the shores of Oman to sail through the world to become the first player from the country to win an FA Cup medal.
His ambition towards the game and attitude towards life took him to places. In 2002, Al Habsi moved from Al Mudhaibi to Salalah-based Al Nasr Club, but after a season he decided to take a chance playing in Europe after being spotted by former goalkeeper John Burridge.
“For Ali, whatever he does, he does it with so much passion. He never gave up and that’s what made him successful,” said Ahmed Al Habsi, Ali’s elder brother and manager.
“Language, culture, weather, food and a different style of football and training; that was a new world for me,” Ali Al Habsi recalls his European stint. His performances brought him to the attention of Sam Allardyce of Bolton Wanderers, a club that was on top at that time in the English Premier League, and he made the move to Britain in the 2006 January transfer window. Once his full debut came at the start of the 2007-08, more sporadic appearances followed, mostly in cup competitions, including one against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup.
Redemption came two years later when Al Habsi performed heroically as Oman hosted the 2009 Gulf Cup. In the final, Oman beat Saudi Arabia 6-5 on penalties after a 0-0 draw at the final whistle in a roaring Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat that gifted Oman its first-ever Gulf Cup in front of a hysterical home crowd.
From there, it was no looking back for Al Habsi: his career hit its peak and his face beamed on billboards, television commercials and magazine covers.
“I still cherish those moments. History was happening in front of me. Winning the Gulf Cup was the best moments of my career. That will remain forever,” he says.
Al Habsi also spent two successful seasons at Reading where he was named the club’s player of the season twice. It was during this time in 2017 Saudi giants Al Hilal came calling.
After a brief stint, the 2019-20 season was the swansong for Al Habsi when he played for Brom – wich Albion in the Championship in England. For Omanis Al Habsi is a national hero, and he remains their captain despite his retirement. He is arguably the greatest footballer Oman has ever produced and a role model for footballers across the Arab world.