Year and year again, we see the Gulf region draw blanks in terms of its ability to offload that one player.That one rep that would symbolize the region in the highly esteemed leagues in Europe. On the other hand, their compatriots in the East of the Arabian Gulf have been shipping out stars, on somewhat a weekly basis; athletes that would eventually represent the entire continent of Asia as a whole.
Currently, as far as my knowledge goes, only one man is burdened with carrying the hopes of approximately 209 Million people in his hands. A good pair of hands that too.
That man is the 6’4 inches Omani goalkeeper – Ali Al Habsi. Yes from all the famed footballing countries in the Middle East that could develop a talent capable of making it big, it was Oman that did it.
Lot of people, are not even familiar with where Oman is located in the region let alone in the map.
Is it the capital of Jordan? I was once asked.
Getting back to the point, Al Habsi is the only Arab (Middle Eastern) footballer that has consistently played a role in the European arena. The tall shot stopper, who currently plies his trade as number one between the posts at Wigan in England, has been playing professionally in Europe since the age of 22. Starting off at FC Lyn Oslo where he was voted as the best goalkeeper in the Tippeligaen (Nowegian Premier League) in 2004, moving on to Bolton where he was an understudy under Jussi Jaaskelainen before landing in Wigan under Roberto Martinez.
Midway through the current EPL season, he and his entire Wigan comrades are fighting to keep their hopes alive. Hopes of not being relegated. And Al Habsi is solidly doing his bit, with 116 saves in 19 games.
Few have had a go at a European stint, the most famous being the most prolific striker to come out of Saudi Arabia, Sami al Jaber. It was as long as Jennifer Lopez’s marriage to Chris Judd. Then there was Yasser Al Qahtani, the 2007 Asian player of the year and again a Saudi striker, who had a shot at Manchester City. Apparently, he fell like a bag of chips after a tackle from ex-City defender, Richard Dunne.
Few are under the radar during this current transfer window with the likes of UAE international defender Hamdan Al Kamali being approached by Lyon (which subsequently was rejected by Al Wahda) and 26-yr-old Omani midfielder Saad Al Mukhaini, who is apparently on trial at arsenal.
There are many factors that come into play here. Among them, lack of motivation to perform to those standards because of the ease of monetary compensation received in the region, would be the main. Plenty of money, family and the fact that they do not have to deal with other cultures and languages would definitely raise the question of why would these “top” players in the region want to leave?
Secondly, the objection of clubs to let the players go. Yes, it is weird and I cannot understand their reasoning behind this. The best example would be that of prolific UAE midfielder Ismail Matar who was not allowed to leave his club Al Wahda, few seasons ago. 2012 and the same club rejected the offer by Lyon for Hamdan Al Kamali.
As the quality of play eventually changes in the region, things are looking bright. Sorry, not really. I was lying to you and myself. Until players and top management come to a conclusion in regards to progression of the sport in the region, it will be a while till we see an Arab footballer playing in the likes of EPL, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga.
Until then we have no choice but to rely on Ali Al Habsi to raise our hopes every time he ends up making a save. And let me tell you, personally, I have not been disappointed so far.