Eight years is a long time. You can go from playing against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup to being a second-choice keeper for a second-tier English team, relegated to bit-part performances in the League Cup. It’s been a long road and Oman’s Ali Al Habsi deserves respect for lasting so long in Europe.
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The 33 year-old's career has been a success, even if it could have been better. Never mind West Asia, no Asian goalkeeper (except from Australia, of course) has lasted as long in the big leagues as Al Habsi. It has been over a decade now and he has been quite the pioneer. In 2003, the giant keeper left the comfort zone of the Middle East to do what few have done before him and it certainly wasn't the traditional path. First he headed to Norway and joined Oslo outfit Lyn. A year later, the Norwegian League Goalkeeper of the Year was planning a move to England.
Sam Allardyce was always a coach happy to give Asian players a chance. While at Blackburn Rovers, he handed trials to a number of players who went on to be South Korea internationals, including Jong Tae-se, Yoon Bitgaram and Koo ja-cheol. More famously, when on a tour of Japan with Bolton Wanderers in the summer of 2005, Allardyce jumped in a taxi when he heard Hidetoshi Nakata was close by. The Asian legend was soon wearing the white of Bolton.
Determined to make it in the big leagues, Al Habsi had gone to the Reebok Stadium for a trial and Allardyce snapped him up. The final step never quite happened. He never became a regular for Bolton, stuck behind local favourite Jussi Jaaskelainen. However, injury to the Finn in Bolton's 2007 UEFA Cup run bought the former Omani firefighter to the fore and he showed what he could do with save after save against Bayern Munich. There were rumours of Bavarian interest that never came to fruition, while links with Galatasaray remained no more than that.
That was perhaps the one regret Al Habsi will have when he looks back on his European career, not the fact that the move to Bayern never happened – always a long shot – but that he stayed at Bolton until 2011. His reputation was never going to be as high again as it was in 2007. At the age of 26, it would have been the perfect time for the Omani to leave – especially as he was soon back playing second fiddle when Jaaskelainen returned to full fitness. England, Germany, France – there were possibilities. Had he left then, who knows what heights he would have scaled? Moving to Wigan Athletic in 2011 was a sideways move at best. Now at 33, Al Habsi should be at his peak and Asia's leading No. 1. Instead, he is warming Reading's bench.
There is still plenty to be proud of. Playing in the Premier League was a significant achievement, and of course there have been more than a century of appearances for Oman. Most importantly, he has blazed a trail for others. Though it remains to be seen who follows. Eiji Kawashima moved to Belgium in 2010 after a fine World Cup with Japan. After spells at Lierse and Standard Liege, he is currently without a club. Iranian Alireza Haghighi moved to Rubin Kazan in 2011 but has barely played for the Russian team. After two loan spells in Portugal, the 27-year-old is at least second choice this season.
Indian shot-stopper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is trying, at least, to follow in Al Habsi's footsteps. The Mumbai-born keeper moved to Norway in 2014 to join Stabaek. In April 2015, he became the first Indian to play a competitive game in the first team in a European league and kept a clean sheet as the team won 6-0, vindicating his decision to overrule his dad – who wanted him to become a cricketer. Thailand star Kawin Thamsatchanan has long had ambitions to go to England – Manchester United in fact – but has yet to make it.
Al Habsi could perhaps have achieved a little more in his European career. He did the hard part but couldn't quite scale the heights he once believed were within reach. There's nothing wrong with that, he did something that few have managed to do before. He was the pioneer for Asian goalkeepers. If he can help others from the continent do something similar, and perhaps go one step better, his services to Asian football will be considerable.
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