Young winger hopes to become first player of mixed ancestry to represent national football team, writes Amith Passela
Al Wahda's Yahya Al Ghassani determined to make history with UAE
Yahya Al Ghassani hopes a recent Presidential decree will help him realise his dream of playing for the UAE one day – perhaps as early as in the Asian Cup next year.
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed issued a decree last November allowing children of men married to Emirati women, as well as those born in the UAE, to register to play for sports clubs and – potentially – represent the country.
Al Ghassani, 20, has already made history by becoming the first son of a non-Emirati father to play in the Arabian Gulf League outside the quota reserved for foreigners, after he signed a five-year contract with Al Wahda on Saturday.
He had initially signed a one-year deal, but after appearing in three games for the Abu Dhabi club, he was awarded a fresh contract that potentially keeps him in the side until 2023.
Born to an Emirati mother and a father who holds Tanzanian and Omani passports, he hopes his early success at Wahda will get him through the national team door.
The winger has Adrian Mutu, the club’s Under 23 manager, and Laurentiu Reghecampf, the first-team manager, to thank for his rapid progress.
Reghecampf brought him off the bench in the season-opening Arabian Gulf Super Cup game against Al Ain in Cairo. Al Ghassani quickly made his mark in the AGL, too, scoring against Kalba and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai.
He was given his first start in a cup game against Al Wasl, and did not disappoint, scoring in a 3-0 win.
“I couldn’t have wished for a better start to my professional career,” he said. “Everyone at the club has supported me from the very first day. I’ll be loyal to Wahda forever.”
He already has an admirer in another Wahda loyalist, UAE superstar Ismail Matar.
“There is no doubt of his abilities, but we shouldn’t jump into any conclusions,” Matar said, however. “Yahya is in the first team because our technical staff has seen that he has good potential.
“He’s got a good future, but he should continue to work hard and gain more experience at the top flight. If he can do that, I’m sure he’s going he’ll achieve his goals – both short and long term.”
Al Ghassani has certainly done the hard yards to get to where he is. He first joined Dubai club Al Ahli when he was 15, but left after it was merged with two other sides to form Shabab Al Ahli Dubai at the start of 2017/18.
Considered at one point by Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain and Spanish clubs Malaga and Leganes, Al Ghassani joined Ligue 2 outfit Paris FC on a three-month contract.
Then he returned to his country of birth to gain more time on the pitch. “I tried to get into a local club following the Presidential decree,” he said.
But Al Ghassani’s comeback was far from straight-forward. He was offered to train with the merged Dubai club, but did not hear from them thereafter. Al Nasr invited him to train with their U21 side, but “it didn’t go well for whatever reasons”.
That was when he received a call from Abdul Basit, former Al Wahda goalkeeper and current team manager, who linked him with the youth side.
“After training for two days with Adrian Mutu, he recommended me to the club management,” Al Ghassani said. “And then suddenly, everything changed for me. I realised my dream had come true.”
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A keen footballer from the age of six, Al Ghassani had played handball and “a lot of tennis” to improve his agility.
His talent was first spotted by the Manchester United Academy. Just 14 years old then, he was one of 10 players taken to Old Trafford to partake in a two-week camp.
They were so impressed by his work ethic, they asked him to stay for two more months.
Al Ghassani has emerged as a UAE prospect.
He is expected to be fast-tracked into the Olympic side, whose bid to qualify for Tokyo 2020 begins in March. But he has an eye on a more immediate prize.
“I wish I get a call-up for the Asian Cup,” he said, referring to the continental championship, to be held in the country from January 5-February 1.
“If not, I will keep trying.”