Imagine the scene: a 194cm goalkeeper decked out in a fluorescent jacket with an oxygen bottle strapped to his back, high pressure water hose in his hands and maybe a Pike pole or a Halligan bar swinging from his belt.
The alarm bell rings and off he rushes to fight a fire spewing from a stricken jet or to extinguish a smoldering blaze deep inside Muscat’s Seeb Airport.
There may not have been an emergency like this in his time on duty, and for that he’s thankful, but from firefighter to professional footballer Ali Al Habsi has had an improbable journey to the top.
As Wigan prepares to start its Premier League campaign at home to Chelsea it’s fair to say that not many of the Blues’ star-studded squad began their professional careers so late, in a country with limited infrastructure and from a land that had never before produced a professional European-based player.
It’s also a fair bet that none came to be there after a previous career as a firefighter.
“Before I started as a professional I worked for one year in Seeb Airport as a fireman and my life changed straight away. Even looking back for me it’s an amazing story,” Al Habsi tells me from the foyer of a plush hotel in his country’s capital, Muscat.
I first met Ali eight years ago at the 2004 Asian Cup, when he was a young keeper playing in Norway for Lyn Oslo. While his professional career has reached unexpected heights since then, nothing has changed about the man - a humble person, deeply rooted in his family and a wonderful ambassador for his homeland.
He’s right when he says it’s an amazing story.
Not only did he have the stint as a firefighter, he didn’t even pick up the goalkeeping gloves until he was 15.
Growing up several hours outside the capital he began playing as a striker and when converted to a goalkeeper it was a tough education. There were no grass pitches in his town and so he learnt his trade among the sand and stones of Al Mudhaibi.
“At that time we didn’t even have a grass pitch. We just played in the sand, we trained on sand and it’s something that makes me so happy where I am now,” he explains. “When you start at this level and as a goalkeeper you don’t even have a grass pitch to train on its really hard.”
If it wasn’t for that relatively late-career conversion and a fortunate series of events shortly thereafter, Al Habsi may still be manning the international airport’s fire station instead of the Latics’ goal.
Barely a year after starting out as a keeper he was selected for an Under-17 national training camp where he was spotted by the goalkeeping coach for the senior Omani side, former Blackpool and Manchester City custodian John Burridge.
“I was 16 when John Burridge saw me and he said I will make you a very good keeper and I’ll put you in the Premier League. When he told me that I was sure he was joking,” Al Habsi says.
“I mean from Oman and you go to the Premier League, this is something that no one can understand. For us, just watching a game on TV is like wow and how can you think you can play in the Premier League?
“He said all you have to do is concentrate, work with me, train hard and you will make it one day so I did as he said. Every morning and every afternoon we trained.
“But then I finished my school and as everyone knows the league here is not professional and you have to have a job. I found a job as a fireman. I worked there for one year then when I was 17 I got a two-week trial with Big Sam at Bolton Wanderers.
“He was really, really interested in me but at that time I couldn’t get a work permit for the Premier League.
“I was 17 years old and I didn’t have any experience with the national team, the Oman league is not professional and nothing was enough for me to get a work permit so I came back here to Oman and continued to play with my local team in the third division.”
Burridge though was determined that his star pupil would make it and arranged for the goalkeeping coach from Norwegian club Lyn Oslo to come to Muscat and watch Al Habsi in the final of the local cup competition.
“I was lucky that I had a very good game and we won the cup and after the game he went straight home and said I want this goalkeeper and the owner was still not sure but the keeper coach said do everything, just sign him and you’ll be proud in the future.”
A professional contract offer followed but Al Habsi had a difficult decision to make.
“It was the first time in the history of Omani football that a player had gone to Europe and had a contract. “My family and my parents were not sure because the contract was not that big. At that time I could get the same money staying here in Oman and working but it was my dream to go to Europe and start slowly at a low level to reach the top level.
“So I spoke with my parents and said please just give me the chance and I will do everything I can to honour myself, my family and my country and my parents said if you really want this chance just go and play.”
So from the heat of the Middle East to a northern European winter Al Habsi backed his bags and headed to Norway
“It was really hard for a few months but gradually I got used to the weather and the way of training and in the middle of the season I got my chance and kicked on from there.
“In the second season in Norway I got goalkeeper of the year and many clubs from England were really interested. Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City were two of them. I finished the third season in Norway and I made my big contract, my dream with Bolton Wanderers to play in the Premier League.”
Thereafter began a new and frustrating adventure. The first two years at the Reebok he was third choice behind Jussi Jaaskelainen and Ian Walker but when the Finn went down midway through the 2007/08 season Al Habsi was finally handed his chance.
“I played the last 10 games in the league and I played my best games for Bolton then,” he recalls. “It was a big moment also for the club, they had been struggling all season and there was a lot of pressure but I’d been waiting for this chance and we managed to stay up and I played big games.
“The following season I didn’t play any games and I wasn’t happy because the fans told me you deserve to be the number one because you kept the club in the Premier League but in the end it’s the manager’s choice. “After that I had to do something, I was 27 years-old, time is going and I didn’t play any games. Then when Owen Coyle came to Bolton I went to him and told him that I can’t stay as a number two anymore and I need a loan or another club. He said of course if a good club comes you can go and then Wigan came and it was something huge for me.
“I went there and got player of the year in Wigan and after the season finished Martinez decided to buy me from Bolton. The Bolton fans were not happy but I signed permanently with Wigan at the start of last season and I had another fantastic season. In two seasons I’ve had more than 70 games in the Premier League.
“It’s brilliant – four years with Bolton and I played just 10 games then I go to Wigan and in two seasons play more than 70. It’s fantastic to be in the Premier League, it’s something special but there’s much more to come. I have more to do, I’m still 30 years old and I’m looking forward to the next couple of seasons.”
Part of what’s to come is planning for his post-football career. He says he’d like to help other young Omanis become professionals in Europe as well as setting up an academy in his homeland but for now there are no immediate plans for retirement.
“Of course you have to have a target and dreams and for me I want to play for another 10 years and reach 40. When you look at the Premier League and there are many keepers still at 40 years; I want to play in the Champions League one day and play with a big team,” he says.
“I’m so happy now at Wigan and I’m enjoying myself but everyone dreams of playing at a high level.”
Even the teenage firefighter at Seeb Airport waiting for an emergency that never came.
“No, there were no emergencies! The only emergency was the weather! The weather in Oman is always an emergency. It’s 50 degrees, you don’t get a fire like that!”
Watch out Chelsea when the heat’s on this Sunday.
Meet Our Bloggers
Fondly known as 'Mr Football', Les has been directly involved in all
the major events covered by SBS Sport, including five World Cup
football tournaments. Follow @lesmurraysbs on Twitter.
As SBS’s chief football analyst, Craig provides expert opinion and unrivalled insight. He has also represented the Socceroos and played abroad. Follow @Craig_Foster on Twitter.
Considered one of Australia's most gifted players, Ned Zelic represented the Socceroos 34 times over a decorated career that spanned Europe, Asia and the United Kingdom. Follow @NedZelic on Twitter.
After years playing abroad and a 20-goal career for the Socceroos, David turned his hand to football punditry and is a beach football fanatic. Follow @zdrila on Twitter.
Scott’s passion and knowledge of Asian football has consolidated his reputation as Australia’s foremost Asian football expert.
Vitor commentates for SBS and works as a presenter for The World Game. His passion for European football resonates through his blogs. Follow @Vitor_TWG on Twitter.
Philip Micallef is a football writer with almost 40 years of experience. He has worked for News Limited and now SBS. He is a long-time follower of AC Milan.
The Circus is The World Game's regular look at the beautiful game from left field. So join us every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for something a little more light-hearted than the norm.
British-born Tim works as a journalist and has lived in Brazil since 1994 and provides unrivalled knowledge of South American football.
Hailing from Amsterdam, Ajax tragic Cornell vander Heyden has over 12 years of journalism experience and cites covering the 2006 World Cup among his career highlights. Follow @dvanda101 on Twitter.