Previous
Leicester City
Manchester City
11:45 AM UTC
Game Details
Middlesbrough
Burton Albion
11:45 AM UTC
Game Details
Next

Ali Al-Habsi is Oman's giant between the sticks

Carlos Tevez of Manchester City has his penalty kick saved by Ali Al-Habsi of Wigan during their Premier League match with Manchester City in 2011.

It's hard to be unassuming when you stand just shy of two metres tall, but it's a feat performed with aplomb by Oman's goalkeeper and captain, Ali Al-Habsi.

Few have taken a more arduous route to the pinnacle of world football -- from the deserts of Oman, to the English Premier League. And while it's a journey that justifies arrogance, in Al-Habsi it's met in equal measure with humility.

South KoreaSouth Korea
OmanOman
1
0
FT
Game Details

Plucked from obscurity to become a household name in England's northwest, it was the remarkable reflexes of Oman's champion custodian that first caught the eye of scouts and managers.

Aged 16, Al-Habsi was drafted into the Oman U-17 national side despite just a handful of games played in Oman's third division. Not even first choice in the squad, it was a flash of brilliance -- a superb penalty save during training one night -- that captured the imagination of the goalkeeping coach, a legend of the English game, the brash and eccentric John 'Budgie' Burridge.

Cut from the cloth of goalkeeper-turned-showman, more Rene Higuita or Mark Bosnich than Nigel Martyn, 'Budgie' saw enough in the Omani youth that his name was touted around England.

And yet while it is the brilliance of the game's great showmen that endears them to their adoring fans, the qualities that defined Burridge's most unlikely protege were well-hidden for many years.

Oman's goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi claps to the crowd at the end of his team's 2014 World Cup Asian qualifying football match against Iraq in Doha on June 12, 2012.

It takes self-belief to go from a trial at Bolton Wanderers to a first professional contract four years later. It takes determination to uproot from family and friends on the Arabian Peninsula to fashion an unlikely livelihood amid the fjords of Norway. And it takes patience -- hundreds of games spent watching from the sidelines across five seasons -- for the handful of appearances that finally cement a career.

Keeping this wiry 1.96 meter frame firmly fixed on solid foundations is a strong faith in Allah, and in himself, but also a tremendous sense of gratitude.

"In Oman, we are just happy to see games of Premier League on the television," said Al-Habsi. "So I tell you, I was not thinking that one day I would reach this level."

Imagine the surprise then for the childhood fan of the German national side and Bayern Munich, when one chilly night in Bavaria in 2007, he would stand between the sticks opposite Oliver Kahn and produce a string of sublime saves to hand his side Bolton a shock 2-2 draw.

It is performances like these that inspire not just the Omani fans, but also his national team.

In 2009 at the Gulf Cup of Nations, Al-Habsi led Oman to its greatest-ever footballing silverware. Champions for the first time, Oman's custodian won his fourth consecutive gong as the tournament's best goalkeeper -- and more remarkably, kept a clean sheet across the entire competition. For 480 minutes no side could beat the Omani captain, and when the final between Oman and Saudi Arabia went to a penalty shoot-out, there was only ever going to be one goalkeeper who would emerge victorious.

It is this kind of big-match experience that makes Al-Habsi so crucial to the hopes of the tiny Gulf Sultanate. Drawn against hosts Australia and Asian powerhouses South Korea, few have given Oman much chance of escaping Group A.

To achieve that success their talisman captain and keeper will need to be in top form -- a fact critics will point out has been in short supply over recent months.

With just four competitive games under his belt over the last six months, it's been a tough season for the veteran. On the periphery at club side Wigan Athletic, a short-term loan to fellow Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion netted just one start, before a return north.

But it's in the context of adversity that the best comes out from Al-Habsi.

Oman's Technical Director, former Matildas coach Jim Selby, has praised the tremendous calm that Al-Habsi brings to the squad, and coach Paul Le Guen has iterated on several occasions the importance of this one man to the team.

More than just a star player though, Al-Habsi is a symbol for his tiny nation. A mixture of Omani and Tanzanian heritage, Al-Habsi speaks to an era in which Oman itself commanded an empire and aspired to regional greatness.

Standing toe to toe with the Premier League's best, the Omani has stared down Robin van Persie, Carlos Tevez and Mikel Arteta from the spot, and in the process earned a reputation as one of the hardest keepers to beat.

It's this coolness and self-belief that will be needed to inspire Oman if they are to once again prove their mettle on a higher stage.

Based in Sydney, Richard was the football analyst on SBS TV's prime-time 2014 World Cup show The Full Brazilian. He writes a regular A-League tactics column for The Guardian, and hosted the 2010 World Cup for SBS radio. You can follow him on Twitter @rrjparkin

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.