Wigan Athletic's Ali Al Habsi is the first player from the Arabian Gulf to play in the English Premier League but the Omani goalkeeper will take it a step further when he competes in the English FA Cup, writes Ali Khaled.
Omani goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi trailblazes his way to English FA Cup final
"You are not only representing yourself, you are representing your nation."
For Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, today's FA Cup final against Manchester City is about far more than just winning or losing. It's about making his Omanis, and the people of the Arabian Gulf, proud.
He has done a good job of it, so far. When the Premier League side beat Millwall last month in the semi-finals to reach their first domestic final, Al Habsi, who played in the match, became the first player from the GCC to reach the final of the world's oldest football competition.
"It's a dream come true for me that I have reached the final," he said. "And I hope that everyone in the Gulf can be proud of that achievement."
With Al Habsi's Wigan facing City, owned by Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, this year's final has more than a hint of regional flavour to it.
Al Habsi, 31, remains the only player from the Gulf to play in the English Premier League. (Fulham's Ashkan Dejagah was born in Iran and plays for the Iranian national team, but grew up in Germany, whom he represented at every youth level.)
Al Habsi's journey to England was a long one.
After playing four years for his hometown club Al Midhaibi, he joined the Muscat-based Al Nasr in 2002, winning the Sultan Qaboos Cup there. After only one season, he was transferred to Lyn Oslo in Norway where his performances earned him the goalkeeper of the year award in 2004.
The three seasons in Oslo meant he had amassed enough appearances to secure a work permit in England, and that is when Sam Allardyce, then the Bolton Wanderers manager, signed him.
But the hard work was just beginning.
Four seasons in and out of the Bolton team eventually led to a loan spell at Wigan during the 2010/11 campaign, when he was voted the club's player of the year. A permanent transfer followed in the summer.
Since then, his form has blossomed, and earlier this season he established himself as the club's No 1 before an injury meant he has missed most of Wigan's now-traditional end-of-season relegation battle.
"I've been very happy with my form this season. Of course, recently I had that shoulder injury and that was a setback," he said. "But thanks to the excellent work and attention of Wigan's medical staff, I've been able to recover in time."
On Tuesday, Wigan, with Al Habsi's rival Joel Robles keeping goal, lost 3-2 at home to Swansea City, leaving their chances of staying in the Premier League hanging by the thinnest of threads.
"Most important of all, I hope that we can stay in the Premier League this season," Al Habsi said, keen to highlight the club's priorities. "It will be difficult but if we succeed then, hopefully, next season can be a new start for me and the club."
His recovery from injury has put him in contention for a cup final recall, but he remains cautious, both about his own chances of making the team, and Wigan's hope of achieving a stunning upset against City.
"A cup final is a one-off match and is not dictated by form," he said. "Obviously, the difference in resources between the two teams is there for all to see but, in a final, the chances are even for both teams."
Still, Wigan's best hope is that City have an off day. Last season's Premier League champions have had little to play for in the past few weeks and could suffer from a loss of focus. On the other hand, Wigan are involved in an energy-sapping relegation scrap.
"Whoever has the better concentration on the day, will win the cup," Al Habsi said.
Win or lose, Wigan will be playing in the Europa League next season because City, second in the league table, is guaranteed a 2013/14 Champions League spot.
It will be yet another first for Al Habsi, fast becoming a role model for those players from this region hoping to make it to Europe. So what is his advice for the UAE's crop of talented youngsters like Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil?
"I think the [Emirati] players need to be patient if they want to play in Europe, and their chances will surely come," he said. "They need a lot of support, and I don't mean financial, but moral – from the fans, their clubs and from their governments."
Anyone who has witnessed Al Habsi representing his country in a home match will testify to the validity of that statement. To his adoring Omani public, Ali Al Habsi is more than just a footballer. He is a national treasure.
"They should be willing to sacrifice everything to succeed abroad," he added. "And if your country is behind you, you will succeed."
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