Yahya Al-Ghassani is a breath of fresh air.
The 25-year-old with boyish looks has the perfect mix of modesty and gratitude, grounded in his humble upbringing, and the confident swagger of a man who finally feels at home, not just in his own skin, but on the football pitch.
The winger has long been touted as the next big thing in Emirati football, and after a standout campaign helping Shabab Al-Ahli to the ADNOC Pro League title, in which he scored seven goals and provided four assists, if there was any doubt, he now knows his best is good enough.
Speaking to Arab News from a cafe in the suburbs of Dubai, any mention of the drought-breaking title for Shabab Al-Ahli lit up Al-Ghassani’s face with a beaming, broad smile.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said.
“I think all my teammates, the president, everyone is feeling the same. This feeling is really, really, really amazing; I can’t even describe it.”
For Al-Ghassani, a product of the Shabab Al-Ahli youth system, the title-winning moment was even more special as it was his goal that clinched the victory against Baniyas and confirmed their first league title since 2016.
“I never thought that this scenario would happen to me,” he said.
“Imagine what I’m feeling right now, scoring the goal that (won) the title for my childhood club.”
And how many times has he watched that moment in the days since?
“I can’t even count,” he said with his trademark smile and laugh. “Before I sleep, after I wake up, I always watch it, watch it.
“It’s not because of how beautiful it was, it’s not because how cheeky it was; it gives me chills every time I watch it. It gives me a good feeling — a really, really, really good feeling.
“I really feel proud of myself and the steps that I took (to achieve this).”
Al-Ghassani’s journey to the top started in the backstreets of Sharjah, where he grew up playing street football barefoot with the other kids from the neighborhood.
That street football upbringing is evident when you watch him play and see the relationship his feet have with the ball. It is a craft honed by countless hours with ball at feet on dirt patches and empty lots.
At age 11 he first joined Al-Ahli, as it was known then before the merger in 2017, beginning a love affair with the club that continues to this day, punctuated only by a brief sojourn with Al-Wahda.
Al-Ghassani is the first to admit he owes everything to Shabab Al-Ahli, which is why winning the title meant so much because he could repay some of what the club had given him over more than a decade.
“Playing for your childhood team and winning the title is different,” he explained.
“The fans are chanting my name, they’re doing my celebrations, they’re telling everyone that I’m the best local Emirati player in the league right now.
“Getting this whole good energy at my childhood club, I can’t even describe it because it feels different. You can’t describe it, it’s a feeling, it’s chills. You see the goosebumps on your hands and legs and everywhere else in your body.
“So this means a lot of things, and if I play (here) until I retire, I think I will still owe this club a lot, because they gave me a lot.”
Whether he plays at the club until he retires is the big question right now, with the Emirati international fielding genuine interest from a number of clubs in Saudi Arabia, including champions-in-waiting Al-Ittihad.
That could mean rubbing shoulders with his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, but a move to one of the fastest growing leagues in the world is far from the extent of his ambition.
Al-Ghassani wants to break the glass ceiling and be the first Emirati player to make it in Europe. And not just make it by playing there, he wants to make it big and he is not afraid to say it.
“I don’t just want to go only to be the first Emirati to play, it’s not worth it to (just) go, then I can stay here,” he said.
“I really want to make it big there in Europe. It’s not easy. I know it’s not easy, but I have to work hard for it, and I think one day, this dream will be closer and closer and closer. It’s coming closer and closer.
“I think it’s not the right time. I think I have to take things step-by-step. I think before I was rushing to go to Europe. I was a kid, and I was dreaming to go. I saw the superstars in Europe and I wanted to be like them.
“But I think I have to respect the steps, and I have to take things step-by-step, and I think by taking it step-by-step the dream is achievable to do.
“(But) I can’t hide it, I’ve been dreaming of playing in Europe since I was a kid. To play for Shabab Al-Ahli first team and to play in Europe, they’re the biggest dreams that I really wanted to achieve.”
While the national team lurches from one crisis to the next — with this past week seeing both the UAE football association president, Sheikh Rashid, and coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena, depart – Al-Ghassani offers a reason to be optimistic about Emirati football.
His boldness, both on and off the pitch, and single-minded determination and pursuit of his dreams is what Emirati football needs more of right now if it is to turn its troubled ship around. And perhaps Al-Ghassani can be the one to steer it in a new direction.
It is a lot to ask of a 25-year-old, who was once a boy with similar big dreams playing on the streets of Sharjah, but talking with Al-Ghassani, you get the sense he is more than up for the challenge.