Ali inks three-year deal with Al Hilal

It was nothing short of a celebration at the Riyadh-based Al Hilal Club late on Sunday night as Oman football team captain and English Championship side Reading’s goalkeeper Ali al Habsi penned a three-year deal with the two-time Asian champions.

Hundreds of the Saudi club fans, popularly known as Hilali, greeted the Oman star on his arrival at the club after according a similar rousing reception at the Riyadh airport on Saturday night.

Muscat Daily had first reported on July 5 that Ali al Habsi would join the Saudi football giants.

Ali

Accompanied by his eldest brother, Ahmed al Habsi, who played a key role in the signing of the  deal, Ali was unveiled by the chairman of Al Hilal Club, Prince Nawaf bin Saad after passing a medical examination.

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Ali al Habsi (right) with Prince Nawaf bin Saad after the Oman goalkeeper signed a three-year deal with Saudi Arabian Professional League champion, Al Hilal, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Sunday night

In his exclusive remarks to Muscat Daily from Salzburg in Austria on Monday where he joined the club's pre-season camp, Ali said, “First of all I would like to thank Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz [club board member] for funding my transfer to Al Hilal and also thank Prince Nawaf bin Saad for showing his interest and keeness to sign me.”

“Al Hilal is a big club in Asia and has big targets like winning the Asian Champions League, defending the league title. It is not going to be easy and I will do my best to achieve these targets,” said Ali.

The Omani legend said that Al Hilal enjoys massive support base not just in Saudi Arabia and Oman but in whole of Middle East. “Such a fan base is very important for a player. My nearly 15 years of experience in European football will help me deal with the fans and their expectations,” said Ali.

The goalkeeper said he was 'very happy' to have signed the deal in Riyadh despite it being a brief visit as he flew to Austria soon after inking the deal.

“I am looking forward to meet the team manager [Ramon Diaz of Argentina], my teammates and other staff.”

Al Hilal, the defending Saudi Professional League (Jameel League) champion, was established in 1957, and is the most decorated clubs in Saudi Arabia with 56 official trophies at domestic and international levels. It won the Saudi league for a record 14th time earlier this year.

Ali’s joining Al Hilal also means that he would be following the footsteps of the illustrious Saudi Arabian goalkeeper, Mohamed al Deayea, who was with the club for more than a decade (1999-2010).

Ali's decision to move out from Reading and English football has a lot to do to be closer to home and, importantly, secure his finances as he moves into the twilight of his career.

The Saudi club has reportedly offered Ali around US$2mn a year besides lucrative bonuses.

The 35 year old Ali moved out of English football with his head held high after winning the Player of the Season with Reading.

Ali guided Reading to third place and a spot at Wembley Stadium in the Championship playoff final.

During his 11-year career in English football, Ali played a total 225 games for Bolton Wanderers (2006-2011), Wigan Athletic (2010-2011 on loan and 2011-2015), Brighton & Hove Albion (2014 on loan) and Reading (2015-2017).

He had signed a new deal with Reading until 2019 in January but the Saudi Arabian club met a release clause in his contract to seal Ali's move.

Ali was the first goalkeeper from the Gulf region to play in the English Premier League, initially spending four years as Jussi Jaaskelainen's understudy at Bolton before joining Wigan.

The highlight of his career came in 2013 when he won the FA Cup in the middle of his five-season stint with Wigan, which ended when he signed for Reading in 2015.

The move by Al Hilal to rope in Ali came after a recent rule change in the Saudi Arabian Professional League to allow foreign goalkeepers.

Ali is expected to make his competitive debut for Al Hilal when it takes on UAE side Al Ain in the quarterfinals of the Asian Champions League next month.

Goodbye Reading

Late on Sunday night, Ali tweeted a goodbye message for his Reading fans.

"Today I officially announce that I am moving to Al Hilal, one of the greatest clubs in Saudi Arabia and Asia. It was surely a tough decision to take. I have spent a great two years at Reading. It felt like home with friends, family and teammates. No one can imagine the support and love that I received from the fans and club. It was a 'one of a kind' experience,” he wrote.

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