Little-known 'keeper to suit up for Canada
LORI EWING September 03, 2010
TORONTO - Scour the Canadian Soccer Association's media guide and you won't find a mention of Haidar Al-Shaibani.
The 26-year-old 'keeper, who was born in Algeria to an Iraqi father and Ukrainian mom, only made his national debut in May after flying under the Canadian team radar.
He'll suit up Saturday when Canada hosts Peru in a friendly at BMO Field (Rogers Sportsnet, 5:30 p.m. ET), and owes his spot on the squad, says coach Stephen Hart, to a better job the CSA is doing of beating the bushes abroad for players.
"We're searching high and low for players every time we go somewhere, or we hear something," Hart told a news conference Thursday. "We're trying to convince some of those who haven't committed yet, we're on a little mission here and you could be part of this."
Al-Shaibani, who has one cap for Canada — he played 21 minutes in the team's 5-0 loss to Argentina in a friendly in May — plays for Olympique Nimes in France, making six appearances for the Ligue 2 team last season.
He played for the University of Western Ontario, plus London City and the North York Astros of the Canadian Soccer League, and then headed overseas at the age of 24, having never stopped a shot in a national team youth program.
Al-Shaibani isn't taking this opportunity lightly.
"My job here is to challenge for the No. 1 spot," he said. "After that it's all in the hands of the coaches to decide, it's not up to me."
The six-foot player has never been anything but a 'keeper, caught up in the diving-save drama of that particular position as a six-year-old watching the 1990 World Cup.
"Every since that World Cup, I've been amazed by the goalkeepers," Al-Shaibani said. "After every game I would always take the ball and practise, whatever I saw the goalkeepers do, I would mimic them.
"Just the way they dive and save the ball, that last man that can make amazing saves, the responsibility of it," he added, noting he's always had a keen interest in former German star Oliver Kahn. "It may be a lot of pressure for some people to handle but if you have the mentality for it, it's not a problem."
Al-Shaibani played "street soccer" in Algeria before the family moved to Canada in 1998. His mom Ludmila and dad Nazar, both university professors in Algeria who own a variety store in London, wanted a better education for Haidar and his sister.
"When you live in a Third World country, it's difficult, it's not an easy feat to do," Al-Shaibani said. "Once you come to a developed country, you understand where you're coming from and you understand hardship and you understand what you have to do to succeed. That's what drives you."
Lars Hirschfeld is expected to start Saturday in net, a position that's in a state of flux in Canada — 42-year-old Pat Onstad is nearing retirement while Josh Wagenaar is currently without a pro team and Greg Sutton has played just one game this season for the New York Red Bulls.
So Hart says he's keeping his eyes open for new goalkeepers.
"You try to look at them in training and give players a game and see how they perform," the coach said. "But it's definitely one of those positions that I'm going to continue to bring in different pairings and get an opportunity to see them.
"The depth is not what it should be, if you consider the history of Canadian goalkeeping," Hart added. "But we're going to work towards that and hopefully we're going to get it right."
The coach likes what he's seen from Al-Shaibani thus far.
"He's very athletic, he has good feet when the ball's played back to him. His quality seems to be a lot of shot-stopping, but he needs to play more consistently, he's in and out of the squad," Hart said. "Goalkeepers are a breed that starts to mature much later, so he has time."
Canada hasn't been helped by the decision of eligible 'keepers to play for other countries. Asmir Begovic, a former Canadian under-20 player, is now playing for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is with England's Stoke City.
Daniel Fernandes, another Canadian under-20 player who's with Panathinaikos in Greece, was the third-string goalie for Portugal at the World Cup this past summer in South Africa.